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IDC: Smiles for the camera phone?

Sales of camera phones are expected to jump dramatically over the next several years, but mass-market success for the technology will ride heavily on customer satisfaction.

    Sales of camera phones are expected to jump dramatically over the next several years, but mass-market success for the technology will ride heavily on customer satisfaction.

    Global shipments of the hybrid devices are projected to rise from 19 million last year to 298 million in 2007, according to a forecast released by IDC on Thursday.

    In part, that's because gadget makers are replacing non-camera-enabled phones in their product lines, as their costs decrease and as product design improves. They're also making it easy for customers to get their hands on the new phones through deals with telecommunications operators.

    For instance, IDC said, a recent partnership involving Nokia, T-Mobile and Amazon.com allows new subscribers to get a camera phone at virtually no cost. And many carriers are offering short-term, low-cost imaging services. In addition, new opportunities will open up in the U.S. and European markets as 2.5G wireless networks mature.

    And IDC found that of those it surveyed who are planning to buy a camera phone in the next six months, nearly 44 percent would be willing to cough up more than $21 per month--in addition to standard service charges--for the ability to send and receive images.

    But long-term commitment from consumers remains uncertain. The novelty of being able to take a picture with a phone wears off within a few months--almost one-third of current subscribers stopped taking advantage of this functionality in just a few months, IDC said. The reason: lackluster digital imaging services.

    "If prices are high and subscribers aren't compelled by the offerings--either service or hardware--they'll quickly lose interest," IDC analyst Chris Chute said in a statement.

    Companies are doing their part to address these roadblocks by developing easy-to-use camera phones that require a minimal number of button taps to capture and transmit photos, IDC said.

    And camera phones are still easier to market than so-called smart phones, which include PDA functions, because they're cheaper--and more fun. By 2008, according to a prediction by In-Stat/MDR, 366 million of the 680 million cell phones sold will have cameras inside.