A while ago, I had written about mobitography – the art of taking photographs with a mobile phone. The reason for this post is to re-speculate about the intersection of the mobile camera market and the traditional camera market.
The traditional camera market has seen a remarkable evolution in the past decade and a half. For those of us who care to remember, back in the day, the camera market was predominantly film based. Companies like Fuji Film and Kodak were raking it in. It was a classic razor blade model, where the money was in the film and the camera’s were just capture devices.
The mobile phone has proliferated to an extent where almost everyone in the world has a phone and the camera module has gotten so commoditized that the camera is now a standard smartphone feature. Basically, you get a free camera when you purchase a smartphone or a high end feature phone. The mobile phone camera has still not percolated down to the mid to low end feature phones. But that day is not very far away.
Just like the CPU speed wars that Intel and AMD engaged in not to long ago, the camera manufacturers were engaged in the MP (MegaPixel) wars. Until of course, the mobile phone camera stole their thunder. The digital camera disrupted the film based camera and its ecosystem. But, who would have thought that a communication device would be such a disruptive force in the imaging industry. But it certainly has. The camera phone has created a mass market that has pulled the rug from camera manufacturers feet. IDC notes that the camera phone market is on a 18% CAGR track and by 2016, there will be close to 1.16Billion camera phones in the market.
The camera industry has quickly adapted itself to this change. We know of one player that refused to adapt or just lay still hoping for the storm clouds to pass over – Kodak. It was a rout for this company and it had to recently close its doors permanently. What a shame! It had a rich legacy in the imaging world and all of it was wasted.
One of the interesting adaptations in the camera industry is the digital-SLR (DSLR). The ILS market (Interchangeable Lens Segment) was considered to be a high end market. Now, as the mass market has slowly shifted towards the mobile phones, the ILS devices are slowly and steadily beginning to fill this void. The mass camera market was anyways an unprofitable market, since the equipment margins were razor thin and there was essentially no post-sale (no film market). So, this may market rift may eventually work out for them. Also, the demand for fixed lens cameras has not entirely vanished. IMHO, the camera market will evolve in to 3 tiers. On the low end, we will have the fixed lens point and shoot cameras. In the middle, we will have a range of consumer grade DSLR devices, and the high end will consist specialized cameras (Mirrorless ILS) meant for the aficionados. Further, IDC points out that the market is slowly moving towards 12MP and it quite likely that the fixed lens and low-end DSLR market will end up with this capability.
But then, this begs the question, are the cell phone cameras that good? I don’t think so. For basic point and shoot functionality, I think these cameras are great. In good light conditions and when the subject is stationary, mobile phone cameras are great. But in varied settings, like low light or moving objects or high ISO, there is a lot left to be desired. And then, there is no optical zoom. You have add specialized appendages to get that effect. Digital zooms can only go so far. But these cameras are slowly and steadily getting better. In the end, I don’t think they will entirely be able to replace the off the shelf point and shoot camera. Presently, the average mobile camera performance from a purely MP perspective is around 5MP. So, there is headroom for improved just in this arena. Many higher end smartphones now sport a 8MP camera. And according to IDC the 8MP camera market segment is poised to grow at a 28% CAGR. While Nokia seems to be in all sorts of doldrums these days, it’s PureView phone has an unbeatable 41MP camera. Well, they got at least this right for a change.
And by far, one of the biggest advantages of mobitography is the element of instantly sharing photos either via social media (FB, Twitter etc) or via Picasa, Flickr etc. Despite technology to even wirelessly transfer files from the camera to the PC, the present day cameras cannot even come close on this one.
And then, it really does not help the camera industry, when each time someone pulls out a phone from their pocket or purse, there’s a camera waiting to be used.