Technology April 2006

A Thousand Words

Cameras and telephones are coming together—and bringing people together—in ways that can shape society

The technology world keeps wrestling with the "clock radio" question. This is the ever-changing attempt to figure out which devices can usefully be merged or combined, given the technology of the moment, and which ones still work best on their own.

It now seems obvious that bedside alarm clocks should come with radios or CD players built in. But it was not so obvious until both the clocks and the sound systems became small, cheap, and digitally controlled. The evolving design of cell phones combined with Palm- or BlackBerry-style PDAs reflects constant tension along this frontier, as companies struggle to devise something small and sleek enough to be an attractive cell phone yet big and stable enough to contain a workable keyboard.

Perhaps I just lack vision, but if asked ten years ago, I would never have guessed that one of the most promising hybrids at the start of the new century would arise from the union of the camera and the telephone. Yet there is very strong evidence that the camera phone will soon seem as natural a combination as the clock radio. It already constitutes a huge market success. Somewhere around 300 million camera phones were sold worldwide last year, mainly by Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, and the other familiar providers. For at least three years, camera phones have outsold "normal" digital cameras, and the gap is widening. "We're still just at the beginning of the process," says Marc Davis, the founding director of Yahoo Research Berkeley, a partnership between Yahoo and the University of California that has undertaken research on the uses and effects of camera phones. "It is like the Internet in 1995"—when wireless access, always-on connections, and quick-and-easy search systems were conceptually foreseeable but not yet familiar, everyday practices.

At the moment, the camera phones available in America have limitations reminiscent of those of the early Internet devices. On many, the resolution is not very good. The clarity of digital photographs is measured by "megapixels—essentially, how many dots make up each image. Ordinary digital cameras now come with resolutions of three or four megapixels, and top-of-the-line models now have seven and up. These create images so detailed that even cropped portions retain clarity when enlarged. Many of today's camera phones create one- or two-megapixel images. They typically lack a flash. Their lenses are very simple, like those in disposable cameras, so most of them can't zoom or be precisely focused. And under many existing wireless service plans, sending photos from the camera to online storage sites or to other users can be complicated and expensive. According to a recent survey, some 60 to 70 percent of American camera-phone users rarely get their photos out of the phone and into a computer, or send them to someone else.

But low-res images, primitive lenses, no flash, and complications in sending—that's just for now! Because models and offerings are changing so rapidly, the only buying advice I'd dare offer is to view three megapixels as a threshold. With resolution less than that, a phone camera will be an extra device; with that or more, and with a flash, it can be your "real" camera. Three-megapixel models, with flash, are coming onto the market, and better ones shouldn't be far behind, given progress in Asia and Europe. Last year Samsung offered the first eight-megapixel product—in Korea. Camera-phone use is more widespread in Europe and much of Asia than in America, and wireless coverage is generally better. (This brings up a related theme: the pathetic backwardness of the United States in all things wireless. More on this another time.)

"People who call themselves photographers will probably always rely on specialized cameras," Davis says. "But for the vast majority of people who take pictures, we're nearing the point where they'll find themselves using the camera inside their phone." Assuming he's right, why will that matter? The more I talk to people in this field, the more convinced I am by their argument that the camera-phone era really will change individual, social, and possibly even political behavior.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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