Who invented the camera phone? It depends

Borland founder Philippe Kahn takes credit but CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos begs to differ. In this case a picture tells much less than a thousand words.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
There's a heartwarming story making its way around the technology press about how Borland founder Philippe Kahn invented the camera phone in a hospital room while his wife was having a baby.

Kahn's wife told him to quit bugging her with his Lamaze advice, so he had his assistant go to Radio Shack and buy some wires, he told me. (By contrast, when my wife told me to shut up during labor, I went to get a Popsicle out of the fridge.) He linked his cell phone to a digital camera and then started posting pictures to the Web, effectively inventing the photo blog the same day. A billion-dollar business followed.

USA Today, Wikipedia and other outlets have repeated the story.

Unfortunately, it's not completely accurate.

Not the birth part. Kahn's wife did have a baby in January 1997 and Kahn did rig up all that stuff and post pictures to a Web site. The experiment eventually led to LightSurf, which he sold for $270 million to VeriSign in 2005.

He just wasn't the first person to cross-breed the digital camera and the cell phone. In 1994, Olympus released a camera called the Deltis VC-1100, which contained built-in functionality that let users upload digital photos over cellular and analog phone lines. (See photo here.)

"The technology was good, but it left room for improvement," according to the-history-of.net. "For example, it took 1 to 6 minutes to transmit one picture--sort of like waiting for a dial-up connection to the Internet."

It's tough to get readers and editors to chomp on "The 10th anniversary of the camera phone, give or take a few years either way."

In 1995, Olympus upgraded the camera. Sharp built a Zaurus handheld in 1996 that had a PCMCIA slot in which users could plug in an optional camera dongle, according to Casmir Decas, a handheld collector. At the time, the Zaurus also had optional Internet connectivity.

An early 1990s patent from Alcatel describes video cell phones, according to Jon Peddie, who ultimately credits Kazumi Saburi at Kyocera for starting his work in 1997.

One could argue that the Deltis is really a camera that can connect to a cell phone, while Kahn made a camera phone. Kahn, though, admits that he didn't come up with a unified piece of hardware that could be called a camera phone. Kyocera did that in 1999, followed by Sharp in 2000. If you want a tenth anniversary, it should probably recognize one of these models.

Instead, Kahn argues that the camera phone is really not hardware, but the act of sending pictures.

"It was instant point, shoot and send," he said.

Good point, but a murky one. When people think camera phone, they think of an object, not an incorporeal mode of behavior. If a cell phone photo falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Plus, the act of sending is what the Deltis did.

Did he popularize it? Sure. LightSurf worked with J-Phone, the first company to come out with a service in November 2000, and Motorola, which followed a month later. This Wired interview in October 2000 also makes it seem pretty clear that Kahn was more solidly aligned with Motorola. Moto is listed as the first trial for LightSurf. The Japanese giant isn't listed anywhere.

I'm not bringing this up to trash Kahn, who is now working on another company called Fullpower. He's one of the more amusing guys in the history of Silicon Valley. He held one of the first press conferences for Borland in a McDonald's in Las Vegas during a Comdex. After he made it big, he decided to use the money to cut a few jazz records. They aren't the greatest albums ever made, but, as vanity projects go, it beats retrofitting a jumbo jet or annoying your neighbor with an oversized mansion.

If you ever hit it big, this would be a great way to go.

He also probably didn't research his claims too deeply, so it's not like he's actively misleading anyone. You could even credit him; however, the record strongly indicates that the camera phone wasn't a one-man inspiration. People around the globe were hovering on this.

No, I'm pointing this out because it highlights one of my favorite things about the Internet: Namely, that technology really hasn't changed humanity as much as some people like to think. Because of the communications infrastructure and supercomputers, we are supposed to live in this world where the vast treasure trove of human wisdom is at our fingertips.

By storing data, the theory goes, we will never forget. Unlike those clods in the Middle Ages. Who was King Arthur? Was he real or not? What kind of tip did they leave at the Last Supper? What came first--wattle or dung--in wattle and dung architecture?

But it turns out our record keeping is similarly slipshod. All this only happened 10 to 12 years ago. Reports in the Investor's Business Daily and USA Today basically had one source for their stories on who invented the camera phone: Kahn himself.

They accepted the word of a famous, rich individual whom people generally implicitly trust because he's famous and rich. Hey, we've seen that a few times in 8,000 years of civilization.

Besides, it would get in the way of a good story. In the Western world, generations have thrilled to the story of the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held off an army of Persians. You don't really hear much, though, about the battle of Salamis, which was actually the (now obscured) turning point in the war.

It's tough to get readers and editors to chomp on "The Tenth anniversary of the camera phone, give or take a few years either way."