The world of compact cameras has changed rapidly in the past few years, and this change is due to the rise of smartphones, and more precisely, due the high quality of smartphones internal cameras. Sales of compact cameras has declined and manufacturers can barely keep their revenues afloat, if at all.
A possible way out: raise the bar and provide an added-value that only a bigger form factor can: bigger sensors, bigger lenses. However, smartphones and wireless broadband have changed user behavior forever: the main incentive for taking photos has shifted from “memory preservation” to “social sharing”, and users demand a way to share their photos with as little friction as possible.
To address these challenges, camera manufacturers have tried building their own software stack, and it is fair to say that it hasn’t worked. It’s too much work, too complex, and it’s likely that Android will emerge -again- as being the solution of choice.
Camera manufacturers won’t come up with an OS on their own
It’s really hard to build good cameras, and it is a skill that has been honed over years, or decades for many of the current players. But smartphones have made “great apps” a new reality in casual photography, and this will spread to higher-end photography in the near future. The success of apps like Instagram or Camera+ on smartphones should not be underestimated: there is a lot of value in having an app do exactly what you want in a very simple way.
If you need data to be convinced, just look at the Flickr stats that show how the iPhone has taken over popular cameras in terms of photo uploads. It is obvious that phones have the advantage of being ubiquitous, but it would be foolish to deny that they are also incredibly easy to use and provide actually good photos in many situations.
Of course, the Instagram example alone is not enough: one size does not fit all, and many users may have many needs – that’s why it is important that 3rd party developers can join the party. It is simply impossible for a single entity (the camera maker) to provide an interface or functionality that will please everyone. On the other hand, providing too many functions often turns of the enthusiasm of casual photographers.
That’s why a healthy app eco-system. There needs to be something for everyone.
Despite smartphones, compact camera can (and will) continue to exist
Thanks to physics, larger camera simply have better, larger optics – this is something that shouldn’t change in the immediate future. Despite the gains made by smartphones for their convenience, there will be a market for larger, better performing cameras.
Additionally, not everyone wants or need a high-end smartphone with a (relatively) excellent camera. However, that does not mean that users don’t want to experience the convenience of apps, and social networks available over WIFI.
Android is available, has a great eco-system
Obviously, smartphones already provide most of the functionalities that users crave. After trying to add social networking and WIFI support for years, it is fair to say that no camera manufacturer has successfully integrated these functions with the level of user-interface that matches what customers know from smartphones.
This is about to change as camera makers go “high-end” in terms of processors in cameras. The gloves will come off, and compact cameras are about to change forever. Soon, camera users will be able to enjoy custom camera user interfaces, easy special effects, cloud sync/share and every other great things that smartphone users can do today. This may even extend the market for camera apps and spawn a new generation of interfaces dedicated to bulkier cameras.
Because the Android source code is available and (mostly) free, camera makers can tailor it to their needs. It’s just perfect for this type of usage.
Conclusion: it’s too good to pass on
It’s clear that companies that have a combination of handset and camera development experience will have the most incentive to jump on board. Samsung and Sony would be among those. However, traditional camera makers should not, and will not miss this: Polaroid has already made an attempt, Nikon has a product, and both Samsung and Panasonic are rumored to come no board. (update: Samsung’s Galaxy Camera is not a rumor anymore…)
Without a doubt, the collision between Android and Cameras is unavoidable, and for Android, this is only one small step towards powering a larger part of the Internet of things.
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