VON Visions: Camera-Phones
Camera or Phone? Floor Wax or Dessert Topping.01-Feb-2005

Useful tool or just another novelty item?

I'm not impressed-sure it's nice to have a camera-phone but the very idea that it's a big deal is a reminder of what we aren't supposed to do ourselves.

It's good to have a camera that can communicate and I can easily add that capability to my PDA/Phone. In fact, all cell phones are powerful computing devices but we aren't allowed to add the capability ourselves and, to add insult to injury, we have to pay extra for picture bits on those phones.

Mobility is important, so I can understand the thrill of sending a picture from wherever I am. One benefit of the camera-phone is that people are now carrying cameras with them all the time. They are wonderful even though they take mediocre pictures and the protocols are problematic. We don't complain because they are novelty items and our expectations aren't very high.

Why shouldn't we expect more? Why should a camera be an accessory for a telephone? And why do we try to sneak bits over a phone network rather than presuming connectivity and adding voice as just another capability? Why do I need to lug my camera or camera-phone back to my PC in order to copy the pictures?

Instead of thinking about the camera as a phone, we should have the option of having a very good camera that can communicate. If we want a single device we could choose a great camera with a network connection and add voice. Or maybe have a radio in our pocket or a shoulder pack (purse?) and add a speaker/microphone/ display device serving as the successor to eyeglasses?

The basic phone connection is a commodity onto which we can build additional connectivity. Letting the phone carriers define our devices is just like letting the tire companies treat automobiles as mere accessories.

Even a modest improvement such as the addition of an 802.11 capability to a camera can allow for innovation. A portable access point can allow our devices to communicate with each other and the rest of the Internet. A PDA/Phone can be repurposed as such a relay with a small amount of software-the same kind we use to share an Internet connection at home.

The carriers are enamored with Bluetooth but that's a dead end. It works well as a onefor- one wire replacement for predefined applications but doesn't support general connectivity over the Internet. 802.11 supports IP connectivity so that we can connect the camera to our PC back home, not just a phone. We can use the display on our wrist as more than a timepiece-it can display information or pictures.

Still, we need to be careful what we ask for, since we might actually get it but nothing more. When we ask for a camera-phone we get a camera-phone. Instead we should ask for cameras that communicate over IP.

Since we are adding the value we don't need to ask for much-just connectivity in our devices. It's easy to explain why that's useful for the PC user. Just bring the device home and you can have the files transferred automatically. You don't need to explain that you really want to use it while away from home since the protocols work at any distance. We can transfer the files to our PC from anywhere in the world.

Once we have a camera that can truly communicate we can use any access point including our telephone as a relay. As people start taking advantage of such communicating devices others can see the value and create a demand for devices more suitable for mobile use. The devices themselves evolve-a camera might take advantage of the PDA for storage as well as relaying data.

A camera is just one example. Connectivity opens up new possibilities. We no longer have to limit ourselves to hyphenated devices-we can mix and match capabilities. Second generation connected devices can innovate in form and function. Telephony and imaging are just capabilities we can build on.

In my last column I wrote about improving the protocols to make it easier to connect devices and support mobility.

Even though I emphasize that VoIP is about innovation not mobility, the current marketplace is still in what I've called the faux telephony stage. For that matter a TiVo is just a simple computer running Linux.

Nice products, but we must see beyond them to the opportunities of connected devices and services we can create. With them, we can share our discoveries and innovations. And then do it again and again