If I were a camera company I’d be nervous

I’d be nervous because phone makers and especially Apple are iterating so fast on hardware and software that nearly everyone is going to end up using phone cameras, with the exception of some dedicated pros and the most obsessive amateurs. Right now the media is saturated with articles like, “How Apple Built An iPhone Camera That Makes Everyone A Professional Photographer.” Many of those articles overstate the case—but not by much.

To be sure, phone camera sensors remain small, but Apple and Google are making up for size via software; in cameras, as in so many domains, software is eating the world. And the response so far from camera makers has been anemic.

If I were a camera maker, I’d be laser focused on making Android the default camera OS and exposing APIs to software developers. Yet none seem to care.* It’s like none have learned Nokia’s lesson; Nokia was a famously huge cell phone maker that got killed by the transition smartphones and never recovered. I wrote this about cameras in 2014 and it’s still true today. In the last three years camera makers have done almost nothing to improve their basic position, especially regarding software.

“Not learning Nokia’s lesson” is a very dangerous place. And I like the Panasonic G85 I have! It’s a nice camera. But it’s very large. I don’t always have it with me. Looking at phones like the iPhone X I find myself thinking, “Maybe my next camera won’t be a camera.”

Within a year or two most phone cameras are likely to have two lenses and image sensors, along with clever software to weave them together effectively. Already Apple is ahead of the camera makers in other ways; some of those remain beneath the notice of many reviewers. Apple, for example, is offering more advanced codecs, which probably doesn’t mean much to most users, but implementing H.265 video means that Apple can in effect halve the size of most videos. In a storage- and bandwidth-constrained environment, that’s a huge win (just try to shoot 4K video and see what I mean). Camera makers should be at the forefront of such transitions, but they’re not. Again, Samsung’s cameras were out front (they used H.265 in 2015), but no one else followed.

Camera makers are going to be business-school case studies one day, if they aren’t already. They have one job—making the best cameras possible—and already Apple is doing things in a $1,000 smartphone (next year it will likely be $800) that camera makers aren’t doing in $2,000+ cameras.

That’s incredibly bad for camera makers but great for photographers. I may never buy another standalone camera because if phones do pictures and videos better, why bother?


* With the exception of Samsung, which had a brief foray into the camera world but then quit—probably due to a declining market and low margins. And Thom Hogan has been beating the Android drum for years, for good reason, and it appears that no decision makers are listening.

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