Disrupting Photons

Technology-watchers have been predicting that cell phone cameras will replace single-function cameras since the first featurephones were released. The serious photographers who write on the subject have now embraced the digital SLR over chemical film, but still laugh at the idea that the tiny optics of a phonecam could ever subsume a dedicated device. Today, I saw evidence that the laughing is over and that phone manufacturers have moved on to the next phase in the tech transfer attitude chain. ("first they mock you, then they fight you, then you win")

There is a billboard just outside Logan airport which says "If it has a ringtone, it's not a camera." This is obviously a defensive move from a threatened incumbent. I am writing this from MIT's Killian Court where hundreds of tourists pour forth from buses each day to photograph each other in front of the great dome. An informal survey shows that about half are using cellphone cameras. Personally, I take more pictures with my blurry iPhone 3GS camera than with my fancy Canon s90 or my rugged Pentax w80. The iPhone 4's camera is even better and will probably represent even more of my picture-taking when I purchase its successor. The idea of a cell camera replacing a single-purpose device is already here for the majority of consumers and is just around the corner for everybody but the most serious artiste.

My tech strategy classes last semester covered many such turning points. We have seen the signs and they are all here. I am imagining the New England lake-ice industry with a billboard in 1920 saying "If it came from a machine, it isn't ice." Sailboat makers could claim "If it has propellers, it isn't a ship." Gas lighting manufacturers might try, "If there is no flame, there is no illumination." This campaign comes off just as desperate, and just as doomed.


  1. This is a classic worse-is-better innovators-dilemma situation. Having the camera with you, being able to upload instantly, etc turns out to be more important in most situations than image quality (see also MP3s).

  2. @matt - indeed, the one-sentence rebuttal is "the best camera is the one you have with you."