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Digital photography's road ahead

With conflicting hardware, software and online services, obtaining high-quality prints of digital images is a major headache. Yet Kodak's Philip Gerskovich asserts that the future looks bright.

Imagine if the roll of 35mm film you just bought worked with only one brand of camera and could be developed by only one drugstore.

That about sums up the current dilemma of the digital photography business: Thanks to myriad conflicting hardware, software and online services, obtaining high-quality prints of digital images can be a royal headache.

But the future may be more promising. A move is under way to promote open standards for sharing and printing digital images, including the recently announced CPXe standard developed in conjunction with Eastman Kodak, Fujifilm, Hewlett-Packard and other industry heavyweights.

Philip Gerskovich, chief operating officer for digital and applied imaging at Kodak, says such standardization is essential for digital imaging to catch on with mainstream consumers.

"We have this expression called the 'chain of pain,' which is all the steps from the time the user presses the button on a camera to the time they get finished prints," he says. "With a film camera, you take pictures, drop the film off at a photofinisher and pick up prints later. Our goal is to make it that simple if not simpler to get quality prints from digital images."

Gerskovich talked with CNET News.com about the prospects for digital photography and Kodak's role in a market that threatens to erode the traditionally profitable camera film business.

Q: Where is the market as far as consumer acceptance goes? Has digital photography reached the mainstream yet?
A: I believe that mainstream consumers are starting to buy digital cameras, but they're using them in an experimental way. They're taking a few pictures, loading them on their computer and playing with them. I don't believe the average consumer is using digital photography in a very constructive way. The reason is that it's still too complex to get the end product, which is typically a finished print. They still use a film camera for memories. For them to use the digital camera for that, the end result has to be more reliable and easier to get to.

Kodak has streamlined the process to pushing a couple of buttons with EasyShare. How much simpler can you make it?

"One of the things we have learned is that nature abhors a vacuum. If there's a need and you don't address it, something will come along to fill it."
We've done a lot with EasyShare to simplify the process, and we're going to do a lot more to reduce the number of steps. There can be a locally attached appliance printer that automatically starts up and makes a print. An online service could automatically take your print order when you connect a camera, and you'd pick them up wherever it's convenient.

How tough was it to get everyone to agree on CPXe? You had to work with some entrenched competitors, including film rival Fuji.
Historically, Kodak and Fuji have worked together for the benefit of the industry. A good example of that is the C41 process for developing film. Most people don't realize this, but each filmmaker used to have their own process for developing film. It made getting prints pretty complicated, because you had to find someone who could handle whatever kind of film you were using.

We got together and developed a standard process called C41. By doing that, the whole industry grew. It's really an example of how standardization works to benefit everyone.

We got together within the I3A (International Imaging Industry Association) to talk about how we could achieve similar standardization in digital photography. We have all kinds of different services and end-user products, all with proprietary software. We all agreed we needed an overall architecture to make sure services and products worked together, for the benefit of everyone.

Did your struggle to get Microsoft to include support for Kodak products in Windows XP inform that effort?
One of the things we have learned is that nature abhors a vacuum. If there's a need and you don't address it, something will come along to fill it. That's why we've been participating so intensely in this I3A effort, to make sure we had the time to come up with a truly open standard...as opposed to any individual company trying to set a standard.

One of the things we discarded was the idea of Kodak unilaterally setting the standard for these services. Kodak is big enough that we could have done that. But by doing it in an open way, it benefits the whole industry and helps us all grow faster.

These standardization and simplification efforts have mostly focused on getting good prints, but isn't e-mailing pictures to grandma the killer app for digital photography?

"Digital photography is still not as good as film in other areas, like light sensitivity and color balance, but over the next three or four years, you'll see a lot of improvement."
Sharing photos electronically is clearly a big advantage of digital photos. It's enabled by e-mailing and online sharing services for photos. But we think that for many people and for many uses into the foreseeable future, people will want something they can hold in their hands, put in a frame, keep in their purse. We see a world where the traditional photograph will continue to be important.

Are there any plans for Kodak to do more with consumer printers?
Our goal is really to be an expert in photography. We're not a general-purpose output company...We've shipped some appliance consumer printers, but the question for us is (whether) can we develop a product that's really better and easier to use than what's already out there.

Has the transition to digital been difficult for Kodak, considering how long and profitable a history you have with film?
I've been at Kodak for three years, and one of the questions I asked...before I came here is what constraints are there on how aggressively we can pursue the digital business? They made it clear there were no constraints. We can't pull our punches. If we did, someone else would go ahead and pursue the market aggressively, and they'd get the lead. We've always had complete freedom to work aggressively to grow the digital business.

Our problem has really been that we've been too early in some cases. We shipped a product called PhotoCD a number of years back, before most computers had CD readers in them. We had to wait awhile and come out with a lower-resolution version before it took off.

Image quality used to be a significant barrier in attracting people to digital photography. Has that faded now that 2- and 3-megapixel cameras have come down in price?
With a 2- or 3-megapixel camera, you can take photos that are plenty detailed for 8-by-10 prints. It's been a real advance in digital photography that the resolution has gotten better. Digital photography is still not as good as film in other areas, like light sensitivity and color balance, but over the next three or four years, you'll see a lot of improvement.

I believe ease of use is the main barrier and not resolution at this point. What to do with pictures once you've taken them is the main threshold for most people now.