Behind the Kodak Wi-Fi Digicam|
Mike Pasini, The Imaging Resource
(Wednesday, January 5, 2005 - 18:17 EST)
Kodak's introduction today of its $699 EasyShare-One Wi-Fi digicam comes 30 years after it concocted "the world's first known operational electronic CCD still image camera" (http://www.digicamhistory.com/1970s.html). With a 100x100-pixel sensor that required 23 seconds to record an image to cassette tape, that pioneering effort may seem forgettable. But that anniversary was one of the first things Kodak's Michael McDougall mentioned in our December phone interview to discuss the company's latest digicam. McDougall is the director of products and services for Kodak's worldwide public relations in digital and film imaging systems.
From McDougall's point of view, the new EasyShare-One is another pioneering effort. Just how that's so isn't immediately obvious. It's easy to dismiss the EasyShare-One as a 4-Mmp, 3x zoom digicam with Wi-Fi. To do so, though, is to miss the point.
The concept, McDougall said, "is to turn the digicam into a sharing device."
You take a picture and wait for it to display on the LCD monitor. Delighted? What's the next thing you do? Share it. You pass the camera to your subject, who laughs and shows it to the person next to them. And so on.
That primitive rite won't disappear with this model, but it got Kodak thinking. And, as the New York Times reported this week, Kodak's strategy for competing with Sony and Canon, among others, has been to study ordinary mortals "to learn how taking and printing pictures fit into their daily lives." The company went so far as to send otherwise unemployed social scientists into the field to observe camera buyers in stores.
What they discovered was that ease of use was a neglected but much desired feature. So, with anthropologists and cognitive psychologists studying ease of use, they developed the EasyShare line, resolving any technical compromises in favor of simplicity. Today the EasyShare brand accounts for nearly 19 percent of U.S. digicam sales, second only to Sony.
Kodak's research convinced the company that the cord to the computer had to be cut. George Eastman's promise "you press the button, we'll do the rest" had become strangled in USB cables. So Kodak developed the EasyShare dock, selling a million the first year.
And then, of course, Kodak gave away the software. The EasyShare image organizer "lives up to its name," we wrote in our review.
With the EasyShare-One Kodak has cut another cable. But that isn't half of the story.
McDougall highlighted the large, 3-inch LCD first. It's big enough that users will not have to decipher icons. The famous simplicity of EasyShare buttons now becomes a touch-screen with soft buttons that have text to explain what everything does.
And the LCD can, as the product shots show, be swiveled around to 1) get a shot at any angle and 2) lock into the camera like a camcorder screen to make in-camera slide shows more presentable.
The touch screen even comes with a stylus so you can interact with the camera much as you might with a PDA. We imagine there will be some use for an on-screen keyboard, to log into hot spots, say.
All that suggests there's a little more under the screen than you might find in your typical digicam.
In fact, the camera's 256-MB internal storage is dedicated to holding 1,500 images that are large enough to make 4x6 prints. If you've ever saved your favorite family photos on your camphone, you get the idea. But on the Kodak, they're not only large enough to make real prints, they can also be easily navigated. You can organize them into unlimited albums and search images by date.
The software behind all this uses Flash to provide what McDougall called a "richer interface," more interactive but requiring very little storage space compared to the bitmapped interfaces in common use today.
THE WI-FI GAME
The camera has two SD slots. One is for storing images, of course, but the other is for the optional Wi-Fi card.
Wi-Fi is simply wireless communication between compatible devices over larger distances and greater speeds than Bluetooth. A Wi-Fi connection is as fast as an Ethernet connection and accessible all over the house, to simplify a bit.
On the EasyShare-One, Wi-Fi enables immediate sharing. Connected to a router at Starbucks, or one in your home or another at a public Wi-Fi connection (say at a graduation), you can even email an image through your Ofoto connection (just renamed Kodak EasyShare Gallery). And you can see your Ofoto/Gallery albums on the camera, too.
Of course, you can sync to your wireless EasyShare printer dock for printing 4x6 images (take it with you to the party) and to your PC with a wireless card to transfer images without ever having to unravel a USB cable. And if your computer is running OS X, the EasyShare One will announce itself on the network using Rendevous.
We asked McDougall why Kodak had chosen Wireless B over the slightly faster Wireless G. Among the factors he cited were manufacturing issues, a shorter development cycle, lower price and compatibility with more hot spots and home routers. But in testing, he said, they found B was adequate for moving 4-Mp images.
We also wondered why the Wi-Fi card was external and not built-in. Again lower price with a choice of venders was a factor. But it also makes Wi-Fi an add-on option for $100 more.
We were surprised to learn that Movie mode is broadcast quality with 30 frames per second at 640x480-pixel resolution. We aren't sure how that flies over Wireless B but having video capability in your digicam is a welcomed feature.
A faster processor supports the new Flash interface but handles only the JPEG file format (nothing fancy like Adobe DNG).
McDougall also confirmed Kodak's commitment to create a Lexus-like level of service for the EasyShare-One. "We want people to use this camera," he said. Owners will have priority help and call status to resolve problems promptly.
The EasyShare-One isn't simply a 4-Mp digicam with Wi-Fi. It's a new game, poised somewhere between what you can do with a camphone and how you handle a PDA mixed with the maturity of digital imaging technology.
As we thought about it, we couldn't think of many companies that could make this happen. Wi-Fi licensing itself isn't cheap. Writing a camera operating system with a Flash interface is no small task. Having some site to link to is not just a question of partnerships. Understanding digital imaging from capture to print is not something you outsource.
With Kodak's acquisition of Ofoto in 2001, the EasyShare-One already had a place to send pictures and retrieve albums. With the wireless EasyShare dock, it could already print anywhere without a computer. With the spacious LCD monitor, you can share the moment the minute it happens and enjoy a PDA-sized desktop.
The EasyShare-One is still a work in progress. But outright prolonged applause to Kodak for making something this sophisticated this simple. It's what George Eastman was talking about, isn't it?