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Is connectivity key to the future of compact cameras?

The humble point-and-shoot camera is losing relevance in a world of ubiquitous connectivity. Why is it that so few cameras are able to shoot and share instantly?

Compact cameras are losing relevance in a market where smartphones have the ability to take photos that are good enough to capture the moment.

Imagine being able to take a photo and share it instantly to Facebook, or back it up to a cloud-based storage service — with a smartphone, this is what happens every day. So why isn't it happening with ordinary cameras?

Over the past few years, compact cameras haven't exactly been revolutionising digital imaging. At the bottom end of the market in particular, there's a plethora of cheap, uninspiring models that aren't helping the camera industry, and certainly aren't attractive to casual photographers. Retail data from analytics firm GfK shows that growth in the Australian camera market is being driven by SLR sales, rather than compact sales. Further afield, it's not a pretty picture for compact cameras in the UK either, with a 17 per cent slump in retail value in 2011 alone — the worst drop since sales data was captured for the market. In the US, one quarter of all photos are taken with smartphones, with photos taken by point-and-shoot cameras dropping by 17 per cent year on year. Take a look at the most popular camera page on Flickr — not one point-and-shoot camera makes the top five.

The most popular cameras used on Flickr. A pretty lonely place, if you're a compact. (Screenshot by CBSi)

Plenty of camera-enabled smartphones can take great shots, and are certainly good enough to carry around instead of a dedicated compact. After all, as the old adage goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. Connectivity is really the only way that point-and-shoot cameras are going to stay relevant when so many people expect their devices to serve multiple purposes.

Existing solutions

You might be thinking that there's an easy way to solve this problem: get an Eye-Fi card. These cards can turn any SD-compatible camera into a wireless device, which you could then connect to your smartphone. Unfortunately for Australian consumers, Eye-Fi cards aren't available locally unless importing from overseas retailers. SanDisk, which has developed a co-branded Wi-Fi-capable SD card in conjunction with Eye-Fi, has said that it has no plans to deliver the card to market in Australia.

Eye-Fi cards also don't allow the flexibility of sharing from any location — you still need a device with 3G or LTE access. Thom Hogan, a noted photographer and writer on cameras, comments that "communication is something that's more useful if the camera controls it. We need integration of communication, not addition", a clear sign that consumers shouldn't have to add devices to an existing camera to make it connected.

Compact camera models from brands like Samsung (see the SH100) are equipped with built-in Wi-Fi, but the implementation is fiddly. Despite the app-like interface, the functionality doesn't come close to that of a smartphone with the ease of shoot and share. We'll have to wait and see if new Samsung models announced at the start of this year make the experience more fluid.

Samsung's SH100 has built-in Wi-Fi and DLNA, but the implementation is not as intuitive as it should be. (Credit: Samsung)

It's also interesting that companies with strong existing smartphone ecosystems that also make cameras — notably Samsung and Sony — are taking so long to cross-pollinate features. Even basic things like photo filters, popularised by apps like Instagram, took time to filter down to compact cameras. Just like Wi-Fi, the implementation is usually pretty basic, with gimmicky effects like fish-eye and miniature (tilt-shift) modes.

What about higher-end cameras?

We're already seeing developments appear at the top end of the photography market, particularly with Nikon's D4, which offers Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity, which has the possibility to trickle down to other cameras in the range if Nikon's product-range history is anything to go by.

This year from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), we also saw a development from the most unlikely of contenders — Polaroid — that has the potential to change the lower end of the market. The Android-based camera from the revived manufacturer has built-in Wi-Fi and the possibility (at least in the US) of connecting to cellular networks for photo and video transfer. Not to mention the advantages of having access to the Android market to add on any number of photography-based apps for creating and sharing work. That said, the actual device looks like a bit of a mixed bag — is it what the iPod Touch is to the iPhone?

The first Android-based camera, Polaroid's SC1630. (Credit: Polaroid)

More silver linings can also be found in the most unlikely of places: Kodak's bankruptcy. While the company itself may no longer make cameras that are particularly relevant, it does own a war chest of patents to wireless methodologies used for connecting cameras to phone networks.

However, perhaps this speculation is all too late to revive the flagging compact market. Most likely, though, is that there will always be a place for advanced compact cameras sporting fast, fixed lenses and manual controls.

Plenty of people who have taken a keen interest in photography thanks to smartphone cameras will want to upgrade to something that delivers even better image quality, like an SLR or an interchangeable lens camera (ILC), rather than buying a compact, especially if it doesn't have the same functionality that they are used to from a phone.

What do you think? Do you want your camera to be connected?