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Android, apps, and Wi-Fi: why your next phone may be a camera

Android, apps, and Wi-Fi: why your next phone may be a camera


Canon, Nikon, Samsung, and Sony are all in agreement: the future of cameras demands connectivity.

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Stick with a "tried and trusted" strategy long enough and you're guaranteed to see it fail. In the world of consumer electronics, even brief periods of stagnation can be lethal to a company's wellbeing — just witness the demise of Sony's TV leadership or Nokia's rapid decline from mobile leader to current also-ran.

It's probably not a coincidence that Samsung was the company to supplant both those former greats. The Korean giant, unhindered by any traditions or commitments of its own, has been able to enter these industries with an odd sort of late mover advantage. Learning from the mistakes of those who came before it, Samsung has invested in the right sort of research and development, and exploited a combination of vertical integration and ruthless pricing to keep chipping away at the lead of more established competitors. Now Samsung has its sights set on the consumer camera market.

The Galaxy Camera embodies both the biggest threat and best opportunity for compact cameras

Announced at IFA a fortnight ago, the Galaxy Camera is the first true hybrid of the casual point-and-shoot camera and the modern smartphone. As such, it represents both the biggest threat to the existence of the point-and-shoot market and its biggest opportunity to remain relevant. Most industry watchers expect the pace of innovation in phone optics and camera technology to obviate the need for pocket cams, but what if the latter could learn enough new tricks from their invaders to keep themselves relevant?

Aside from their size and omnipresence in people's lives, smartphones have been ahead of cameras on two important fronts: having wireless connectivity of multiple varieties and offering a far more cohesive (and expandable) user experience. The Galaxy Camera rectifies that disadvantage by essentially tacking the smartphone onto the camera — with its Android 4.1 OS and Wi-Fi, 3G, and 4G capabilities — but it's not necessary to go quite that far to offer something compelling to the end user. Just integrating a wireless radio makes for a great start, while the user experience can be outsourced to an external platform via an accompanying app.

Nikon and Canon have gone that route with Android and iOS apps that allow you to tweak settings, adjust focus, and remotely trigger the shutter on a number of their high-end DSLRs. Sadly, the Nikon models require a bulky (and expensive) external Wi-Fi dongle, while Canon's only just getting started with the EOS 6D, but at least they're both on the right track now. Nikon is even attempting to do something approximating the Galaxy Camera with its S800c, though that's been a rather milquetoast effort with a number of severe limitations.

Sharing to the web is no longer just a fancy extra for the tech savvy

Sony's also jumping into the wireless craze by including Wi-Fi on the two new entrants in its NEX lineup, the NEX-6 and NEX-5R. Proprietary Sony apps are being developed to enhance functionality on the cameras themselves and you can share media directly with iOS or Android devices via apps for each platform. There's no sense of enthusiasm from the company for doing anything more daring in the vein of Samsung and Nikon's efforts, though its attitude matches that of its competitors. Cameras have to be connected nowadays — sharing to the web is no longer just a fancy extra for the tech savvy.

In fact, the only company I could find at Photokina that definitely has no plans for a Wi-Fi-capable camera was Leica. And even that reluctance is down to the forbidding all-metal construction of the M series rather than misgivings about the value of being connected.

Leica is the only company that isn't actively developing a Wi-Fi camera

Innovation in photography can come from all sorts of sources. Photokina 2012 is as full of big lenses and enormous price tags as it's ever been, but scanning the Koelnmesse halls you can tell that connectivity is a definite emphasis for camera purveyors. The idea and technology aren't new, however the approach has been refreshed. Photography companies are wising up to the need to make the act of sharing, not just connecting to the web, a smooth and effortless experience for the user, which they're responding to with newfangled Android cameras and a plethora of mobile apps.

There's still a long way to go in this evolution and there's no way to be sure where exactly it'll end up. Few companies will have the wherewithal and courage of Samsung to test the boundaries of what's possible, at least not at the outset, but the vast majority of them should be able to retool their cameras to make them more communicative and less insular. In their effort to fight off the threat of smartphones, camera makers have no choice but to embrace building devices that feel and act like phones themselves.