iPhone 4S: Beginning of the end of point-and-shoots?

Apple's improved camera is one of the new iPhone's biggest stories--and it could be bad news for makers of cameras that don't happen to be phones.

iPhone 4S

Back in 2004 or thereabouts, I went to Universal Studios Orlando. Once I was inside the park, I whipped out my trusty Nikon point-and-shoot camera to snap a picture--and discovered I'd forgotten to put a memory card inside it.

I did have a backup camera with me, sort of: The one inside my Nokia cameraphone. (That was back when we called them "cameraphones.") I took some pictures, but the best ones were fuzzy and unappealing, and the worst were downright horrific. I can't remember if I even bothered to transfer them out of the phone.

If I repeated my memory-card blunder today, I'd be in much better shape. My iPhone 4 is capable of surprisingly good photos, especially in sunny weather of the sort you take for granted in Orlando. But I'd still be inclined to bring another camera if photo-taking was a major part of my outing.

Today, Apple finally announced the new iPhone--the iPhone 4S. As the name suggests, it's an evolutionary upgrade from the iPhone 4, not a re-imagining of it. And much of what's new involves the camera, which Apple has spruced up in multiple ways.

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The new one packs eight megapixels, up from five in the iPhone 4. It's got an illuminated sensor that Apple says is more sensitive, a five-element lens that can shoot faster, and a better flash. The dual-core A5 processor in the phone helps reduce the wait before you can take a picture, a traditional source of frustration and wasted opportunity with all phone cameras. The camera shoots 1080p video, a first for an iPhone.

Apple's page on the 4S camera says it "just might be" the best phone camera ever. For Apple, that counts as modesty, especially since it's an upgrade to the already outstanding iPhone 4 camera. It also says that it "just might be" the only camera you'll ever need, which is a far loftier claim. I'll look forward to testing it when I get my hands on an iPhone 4S myself.

But even before I can do that, I'm wondering: are the best cameras built into phones about to push standalone point-and-shoots out of the picture?

From a technology standpoint, phone cameras haven't caught up, and might never do so. Their sensors remain puny. Their flashes are too small and too close to the lens---simultaneously wimpy and likely to give images an unflattering harshness. Their lenses are cheap, and very few companies have ever dared to put an optical zoom on one. (Here's one exception--kind of clunky, no?)

For all these reasons, even a basic "real" camera can capture better images than a good camera phone. The iPhone 4 is capable of taking surprisingly decent photos not because its photographic hardware is anything to crow about; it's because Apple has done an especially good job of using image-processing software to get the most out of the hardware it's got. That's why iPhone 4 snapshots often look much better than ones from phone cameras with better specs. And I assume that the iPhone 4S's imaging software is going to be just as important as its hardware, if not more so.

But the iPhone 4S's camera doesn't need to be every bit as good as a point-and-shoot to change the game. Most consumers aren't going to bother with the cost and complication of a separate camera unless it's a lot better, not just a little better.

And I did I mention that even the lowliest phone camera has one big advantage that standalone cameras don't--an Internet connection? That's what enables photo sharing via apps such as my favorite, Instagram. (The brilliant Eye-Fi, which packs Wi-Fi into a memory card, helps get cameras online, but doesn't eliminate the connectivity gap with phones.)

You can see the minds of traditional-camera giants such as Canon, Nikon, and Olympus at work when you look at their newest models. They know they need to offer things that phone cameras don't. They're cramming huge optical zoom lenses into small cases, for instance. They're also devoting much of their energies to cameras that blur the distinctions between digital SLRs and compact models--higher-end models aimed at discriminating photo buffs rather than the teeming masses of consumers who just want to take happy snapshots. They're adding both more automation, such as fancy panorama modes, and more manual settings of the sort that phone cameras don't bother with.

Bottom line: the iPhone 4S and its best rivals aren't going to kill point-and-shoots. In tech, nothing ever kills anything else, if "killing" means eliminating it almost instantly.

Over the next couple of years, though, I think you'll see mundane compact cameras start to feel a tad retro. People will still use 'em. But at some point, if you go to an event such as a wedding, almost everyone will be snapping photos with either a phone or a really serious digital camera such as an dSLR or a Micro Four Thirds model.

All of which leaves me with a new question: how long until a breakthrough comes along that leaves us wondering whether phone cameras might be about to render the very best consumer digital cameras--the really big, really pricey ones--obsolete?

I have no clue if I'll live to see it happen, and I'm placing no bets. But it'll be fun to watch the developments.