Years ago, everyone replaced their instant film and disposable cameras with a slightly more permanent option: digital cameras. Kodak was the originator of digital camera technology, and it completely changed the way the average consumer captured those memorable moments. Since then, various levels of digital cameras have sprouted, from DSLRs to your cheap, run-of-the-mill, point and shoot cameras.
Over time, the theory that the best camera is the one you have on you spread, and digital cameras soon found themselves fixed inside cell phones far and wide. But quality was laughable. What's the point in having a phone equipped with a camera if the camera is only capable of producing grainy, out of focus photos at 240 by 160 pixels?
More recently, however, the built-in cameras in mobile devices have faced mind-blowing improvement.
Four years ago, the camera on the Curve 8330 was more than sufficient for me. At only 2-megapixels, I was convinced it was the best thing since sliced bread, and proceeded to snap photos of everything. It only got better with the BlackBerry Tour 9530, which came with a 3.2-megapixel shooter. After taking the Android plunge and buying a CDMA HTC Hero, though, my whole perspective changed. The Hero came with a 5-megapixel camera and the improvements were impressive, to say the least.
Ever since, I've been somewhat of a smartphone camera snob. I'm constantly harping on how camera technology in cell phones could be so much better, how mobile OEMs need to quit making a very well-rounded phones with lackluster image sensors. I'm far from a photography or camera expert, but I've used enough phones and dedicated cameras to know when an OEM has cut some corners and chosen image sensors from the bottom of the bucket. (Ahem, Galaxy Nexus.)
Back when point and shoot cameras were significantly better than built-in cameras on phones, there were more than enough reasons to own a dedicated camera. Now, however, some smartphones are capable of capturing images that as are good as pictures taken with a typical point and shoot, if not better. Nokia started using Carl Zeiss optics and has earned a respectable reputation for the quality of shots captured with their devices. Apple, too, gave optics a little more attention in the past two generations. The iPhone 4 was the most popular used on Flickr, and they made its successor, the iPhone 4S, even better.
Unfortunately, this has almost entirely removed the need of dedicated, point and shoot cameras, at least for the average person. Professional photographers aren't going to turn in their SLRs for an iPhone, of course. But even the basic smartphone is capable of capturing high enough quality images for sharing on the Internet or even printing out for framing. Better cameras in smartphones are stepping all over the toes of dedicated camera manufacturers.
Earlier this morning, Reuters reported that Kodak, after filing for bankruptcy protection last month, will be shuttering its camera business. They will license their brand to other camera makers. Christopher Veronda, a spokesperson for Kodak, said that there are several camera makers that show "significant interest" in licensing the Kodak brand.
This is where smartphone manufacturers could largely benefit, should they recognize potential when it smacks them in the face.
Some smartphone OEMs, like Sony and Samsung, already have ties to the camera business. Earlier today, it was discovered that Samsung has filed for a trademark, which hints at an Android-powered camera, the Samsung Galaxy Camera; Sony has developed a new set of CMOS sensors, which will introduce mobile HDR recording for the first time and improved RBGW coding for enhanced low-light shots. And Nokia is already incorporating Carl Zeiss lenses in their devices.
Apple, HTC, Motorola and a plethora of other mobile manufacturers certainly showed interest in providing consumers with better built-in camera options by bumping the pixel count. And Microsoft has promised to make Windows Phone "the best camera you will ever own."
Seeing as most of these manufacturers already outsource or purchase the components for their devices from other manufacturers, it would only make sense that they hand off image sensors to companies with a little more know-how. Kodak may not have the best reputation for cameras as of late, but they still have brand recognition ("Kodak moment," anyone?). Slapping some Kodak optics and a label on the back of a phone might prove to be a way for both Kodak and smartphone makers to benefit.
But Kodak is hardly the only camera maker that should weigh their options. Olympus, Panasonic and a slew of others are slowing feeling the grip of built-in cameras on smartphones. Teaming up with, say, HTC to produce a phone with an even better camera would give them a much needed differentiating factor in a market where everything is beginning to look and perform the same. There are loads of potential in this area, and while Samsung might be on the right track with the Galaxy Camera, I'm not sure many people are going to want a camera because it's powered by Android. They will, however, want an Android phone that has significantly better optics.
What say you, folks? Would you buy an Xperia Cybershot? Or an HTC/Kodak phone? It can only go up from here. Here's to hoping OEMs can start thinking outside the box a little and begin partnering with companies that specialize in cameras.