New Life for Dying Digicams? A little WiFi Love from Samsung…

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posted Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 8:20 PM EDT

Samsung's logo. Click here to visit the Samsung website!We recently met with top Samsung executives in South Korea, discussing their product plans and vision for the future. We talked about many things, much of which is covered in a separate interview digest, but it was Samsung's strategy to save the pocket camera that we found interesting enough to warrant its own article. With everyone in the camera business nervously watching the declining point & shoot sales figures, the question is: Can the digicam be saved or is it headed for the realm of the buggy whip and Victrola? Samsung made it clear that to remain relevant, pocket cameras in particular need to be connected to the Internet via WiFi, and outlined their ongoing plans to make that happen.

The Dying Digicam

While even a basic digicam offers better image quailty and more photo features than any smartphone camera, the truth is that smartphone cameras are good enough much of the time. Smartphones have the huge added advantage that sharing photos to Facebook or any other online photo-sharing solution is trivial.

Long zoom lenses and dramatically better low-light shooting still sell digicams, but those cameras often end up sitting home in drawers while the wimpy cell-phone cameras ride along everywhere. Social sharing has a lot to do with this: Faced with lugging a second device that's harder to share from than the one you'll have along anyway, a lot of us just don't bother.

A number of camera makers have tried adding WiFi connections to their cameras to compensate - A solution that consumers have resoundingly ignored in the past. At the end of the day, WiFi cameras have been a bit like eating spaghetti with chopsticks: They got the job done eventually, if you were patient enough.

Digicam Salvation?

This is all about to change, though, and Samsung seems well-positioned to lead the revolution.

The recently developed WiFi Direct protocol turns the whole phone/camera equation on its head, with cameras broadcasting themselves as WiFi hotspots that smartphones can connect to. Now, rather than having to log onto arbitrary WiFi networks via the pitiful digicam user interface, the camera becomes just another WiFi node that your phone knows about and can connect to. Just this year, a number of manufacturers have announced cameras based on this technology.

In this model, the camera becomes a peripheral to the phone; just another source of images it can access and work with. Of course, the devil is always in the details, and the current integration isn't exactly seamless. Rather than the camera's photos simply appearing in the phone's photo library, you have to set the camera to "transfer mode" to fire up the WiFi radio, then launch an app on your phone to pull the photos over and send them on their way to wherever you want them.

This was one area we queried Samsung on specifically - Why can't the photos just appear on your phone automagically? Here's what Ethan Rasiel, Director of Public Relations for Samsung Electronics America had to say:

"There's one thing that came to mind on that; camera usages, people don't use it every day necessarily, so we don't charge it every day like a phone. We could do it today, but if it's copying automatically, the camera's going to run out of power very fast. So it's intentional that you have to manually turn on WiFi.. For the usage scenario, when you pull it out of your bag it has to be ready to go. If you have to charge it every day, it's not going to happen."

Because Samsung has access to the inner workings of both the camera and smartphone, though, Mr. Seongwoon Kim, Ph.D., Vice President, R&D Team, Digital Imaging Business said "That will come soon." That's a strong statement, and a huge prospective breakthrough in phone/camera usability.

Convergence from both sides

The whole point of meetings like the one these notes are written from is of course to present the company's technology and abilities in the best possible light. Even setting aside the Kool Aid, though, there's a lot to argue that Samsung is uniquely positioned to promote true integration between phones and cameras. After all, they're the only global company with significant market positions in both products. Other device makers will have to wait for industry-wide standards for phone/camera communication to be developed, but Samsung's in the driver's seat on both sides of the relationship, so has the freedom to do whatever they like to make the connection between their own products.

Phone-Cameras?

We usually think of camera-phones rather than phone-cameras; a camera that's added on phone features. What are the chances of that happening? In a related question, why don't we see cameras with the sorts of glitzy user interfaces smartphones have?

Taking the second question first, it comes down to economics. As stated by Mr. Byungdeok Nam, Senior Vice President, R&D Team, Digital Imaging Business:

"I think the more processing power you have, the more cost you're going to incur, and the added memory is going to be more costly, as well. So I guess cameras can have the same processing power as smartphones. But, I think we have to strike a balance between the cost and the value. And the product that we came up with to strike that balance is the WB150. If the semiconductor technology continues to develop and the price drops, then I think that there will be more smart cameras; then we can have more processing power and memory as in smartphones."

That said, silicon is getting cheaper all the time, and there's at least one camera already in the market running Android, the same OS powering Samsung's smartphones. Again, in the words of Mr. Nam:

"Well, basically, the OS for cameras and the OS for smartphones are different. Right now, phones have more processing power and they have more memory, So semiconductor companies are providing products that are needed by the smartphone companies, but I think that the same goes for cameras. I guess that in a year or two, cameras can have the same processing power or memory as smartphones."

We pressed Samsung a lot on when (or even whether) we might see a Samsung camera running Android, but they wouldn't admit to anything specific. For our part, it's hard to imagine Samung not making such a product: We think it's only a matter of time, and our guess is not a very long time at that.

A true phone-camera is another matter; the problem is the zoom lens. At least for the foreseeable future, there's no way to cram a long-ratio zoom lens into a package the size of a smartphone. - And if it's bigger, we're back to the same camera/phone dichotomy. Even so, Mr. Sunhong Lim, Vice President, Sales & Marketing Team, Digital Imaging Business said "I think the time [when either cameras or cell pones win out over the other] will come earlier than five year', much earlier than five years."

Coming to a camera near you

Because WiFi Direct is an industry standard protocol, Samsung's not the only company working in this direction: Four different companies introduced a total of eight WiFi-enabled digicams at CES 2012 in January of this year. Five hundred million new smartphones every year begging for a connection -- vs just 120 million cameras -- is an irresistable lure. Samsung is better positioned for tight camera/phone integration than anyone else, but expect to see a lot of cameras sporting WiFi radios over the next year or two.