Camera phones are here to stay

Last year, more than 75 million camera phones were sold worldwide. Are they just a consumer fad, or do they have the potential to be a useful business tool?

Last year, more than 75 million camera phones were sold worldwide. Are they just a consumer fad, or do they have the potential to be a useful business tool?

Camera phones make many companies nervous. They can be used by industrial spies and disgruntled employees to cause irreparable damage. But there are intriguing enterprise applications - most obviously in real estate, public safety, remodeling, insurance adjusting, construction and advertising. Ultimately, camera phones could be used to document work in the field.

But don't expect companies to flock to today's low-resolution camera phones. The typical camera phone has a 300,000-pixel camera - about one-tenth the pixels of a decent stand-alone digital camera. The images look OK on the mobile handset's tiny display. They are slightly fuzzy when displayed at one-quarter screen size on a PC. Prints are simply impractical.

New camera phones with approximately 1.3 million-pixel resolution are being introduced. These models should enable small (perhaps 4 by 6 inches) but reasonably clear prints. More importantly, they open the door to a wider range of applications.

But there is another obstacle to enterprise adoption: lack of picture messaging interoperability between mobile phone operators. Large companies don't want to be limited to one operator for internal picture messaging. Nor would those interested in using picture messaging as a marketing tool want the hassle of supporting multiple standards.

In Europe, virtually all operators adhere to the same standards and interoperability is almost a given. But camera phones and picture messaging would not be as successful today were it not for innovations that sprang from more competitive markets. So far, the overwhelming majority of camera phones have been sold in Asia. In the U.S., Sprint PCS reports subscribers uploaded more than 66 million images last year.

Still, North American operators recognize interoperability could have a multiplying effect on picture-messaging growth, and most say they are determined to make it happen. Multimedia messaging service standards define the packaging and transmission of images; the user interface is left up to individual vendors.

Other issues are confronting camera phones. Higher-resolution camera phones will need flash capability to overcome poor lighting. (Most 300,000-pixel models don't have a flash.) However, the flash integrated with the new megapixel phones tends to be good enough for taking a picture of a nearby person's face but not good for much else. Another problem is that digital camera's zoom capability simply enlarges a section of the original image. A zoom is needed to capture sharp close-ups.

Camera phones pose both threats and opportunities. Savvy companies will realize that camera phones are here to stay, make the necessary security adjustments and look for ways to employ picture messaging for competitive advantage. Banning camera phones is clearly not the answer.

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