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.

The GeekDesk / writing space 2012 post:

Since my 2010 writing space post, quite a bit has changed. Here’s the new setup, viewed from a couple of angles, with an explanation below the photos:

Those of you who looked carefully, or even not very carefully, probably noticed something unusual: the desk is at two different heights. That’s because I’ve been using a GeekDesk for long enough to form an opinion on it, which is that I’d be reluctant to go back to a regular desk or a purely standing desk. I’ll write a longer review when I have more time, but the preceding sentence tells you most of what you need to know.

The other salient upgrade is from a 24″ iMac to a 27″ iMac with an SSD and a conventional hard drive. This machine inspired me to write “Mac OS 10.7 is out today, and I don’t care because ‘In the Beginning was the Command Line,’” because computers have now, finally, become “fast enough” and “good enough for my purposes. It’s taken a long time! I keep meaning to get a better stand than a pair of books, but that’s the sort of project that’s very easy to delay, indefinitely, until tomorrow.

The keyboard remains the same, and it’s hard to see what could make me replace the Kinesis Advantage. Its keys still feel new. The speakers aren’t very interesting, although they are external and thus better than the built-in ones, but they’re probably wasted on me because I don’t listen to music all that often, and they’re overkill for movies or TV shows. The external monitor is a 23” Dell with an IPS display, although I can’t remember the model number and don’t feel like looking it up. It’s a fine panel, but not very interesting. The lights on the back of the iMac are cheap Antec Halo LED lights, which are supposed to reduce eyestrain in dark rooms. Not sure if they actually do. I suspect turning down the iMac from “blinding” to “tolerate” would have as strong an effect.

You can see a Canon s100, which usually rides in my pocket. Sony now makes a better version of the s100—the RX100—but the RX100 is also $300 more. In a couple of shots there’s also a boring iPhone. If I weren’t on a family plan, I’d probably get a cheap Android phone, because I use maybe 5% of its features. Unless you’re doing a LOT of sexting, I don’t think I see the point in getting a more expensive “smart” phone over a less expensive one.

There’s also an Aeron, which is better for me than their recent Embody. Reasons for why I say that will follow when I have more time.

DSLRs, smartphones, and point-n-shoots

Pictures taken with smartphone cameras almost outnumber standalone digital cameras. A couple thoughts:

1) More people probably have phones with them than regular digital cameras, so the “photographer base” is probably much larger. For more statistical anomalies, see C|Net’s take. Moral: it’s easy to lie / mislead with statistics!

2) People who have standalone digital cameras, especially dSLRs, probably take more pictures than people without; so I would guess a larger number of pictures are taken by a smaller number of people in that case. I would tend to guess they also take better pictures: not because of some magical quality dSLRs possess, but because people who know a lot about photography are more likely to buy better cameras.

3) Separate from the article, I have never seen a greater number of dSLRs than I did in NYC. Tourists, I guess? I never conspicuously hauled mine around. I wonder which city would qualify as “most photographed in the world;” perhaps Flickr or Facebook’s data hordes could answer. I would guess Tokyo or London.

4) Smartphones are clearly reaching (and, in some cases, have already reached) the “good enough” stage that so much consumer technology eventually does. I wouldn’t trade a Canon s100 or t2i for a phone camera, but in decent lighting the iPhone 4 and 4s do produce nice results. Note that interchangeable lens camera sales are up, probably because the Internet makes pictures more valuable for amateurs because of the possibility of sharing and perceived status gain.

5) The photographer still makes the camera more than vice-versa.

6) For any kind of composed shooting, a tripod will do more than anything except decent lighting, whether natural or studio.

7) Life is uncomposed, and capturing life might demand the same.

8) What am I missing?

Desktop PCs aren’t going anywhere, despite the growth of phones and tablets—because they’re cheap

I’m tired of articles like “As PCs Wane, Companies Look to Tablets” You know why PCs aren’t going anywhere? Because they’re cheap. You can buy them reasonably close to cost. If you want the least expensive means of computing possible, you can’t beat PCs now and won’t be able to for years, at the very earliest. Sure, “making them has not been a great business for most American companies for almost a decade,” but that’s because consumers are deriving so much surplus from PCs. They’re not close to commodities. Which is great for buyers, if not sellers.

The industry, the reporters who cover the industry, bloggers, and other people with a stake in the action want you to believe “TABLETS TABLETS TABLETS ARE COOL!!!!” because they want you to buy relatively high-margin tablets. Those tablets are high-margin because they combine commodity hardware with OS lock-in. The industry wants to move closer to Apple’s model, since Apple gets away with what it does because a) it has great design and b) for a long time, and maybe up to the present, OS X was more fun and in some respects better designed than Windows. Lock-in and high margins? What’s not to love from a business perspective?

It’s also not very much fun for journalists and bloggers who drive these stories about PCs to write stories that say, “Area man continues to derive immense intellectual, social, and efficiency value from the PC he bought five years ago and which continues to meet his needs adequately.” I wouldn’t read that story or post either. The larger tech press needs to find something to hype. In this case, of course, tablets and cell phones are genuinely big deals and their impact will continue to reverberate—but just because one sector is waxing doesn’t mean another is automatically waning. Especially when that sector offers a lot of value for the money.

So: every time you see a call for tablet computing, regardless of its source, you should remember that somewhere behind it, there’s a manufacturer who wants to sell you more stuff at higher prices. Paul Graham calls such beasts “the Submarine,” and if you want to understand how you’re being marketed to, you should read that essay. The PC manufacturer can’t really sell you more stuff in PC laptops and desktops these days because they’re too inexpensive and interchangeable. Apple can sell you design and an unusual operating system. Maybe Lenovo can charge above-average prices because of the Thninkpad’s reputation for durability, but that’s it. Everyone else is scrambling because consumers dominate producers when it comes to PCs. So we get stories like the one above; and, if, as Tyler Cowen speculates in this example, the U.S. economic model moves closer to Japan and capital depreciates, expect to see even more calls for tablets and so forth. Anything to avoid acknowledging that an existing stock of capital is Good Enough.

And you can expect to see misleading headlines like the one above. It’s frustrating to read stuff like this:

Computer makers are expected to ship only about 4 percent more PCs this year than last year, according to IDC, a research firm. Tablets, in contrast, are flying off store shelves. Global sales are expected to more than double this year to 24.1 million, according to Forrester Research.

How does an increase in the absolute number and the percentage of PCs sold an indicating of waning? I think that means computer makers will ship over a hundred million units, compared to a quarter as many tablets. I checked out Dell’s website, and one can buy a very nice Inspiron desktop with a dual-core AMD processor, 3 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB hard drive for about $400. Get a cheapie 20″ monitor, and you’ve got a very competent machine that’ll run Windows passable well for under $600. Get a sweet 24″ IPS monitor as good or better than the one in my 2007 24″ iMac for another $500, and you’re still under $1,000. That’s why desktops aren’t going anywhere and all this blah blah blah about tablets is important but also overrated by tech sites chasing the new shiny but who also think that everyone has, if not an unlimited budget, then at least a very substantial one for technical toys. Given my work, it’s probably not surprising that I have a higher-than-average budget for technical toys and tools, since I use my computer every day and often for very long stretches, but for people who aren’t writers, hackers, day traders, pornographers, and the like, having an expensive computer and a tablet and a phone is, if not overkill, then at least overpriced.

Some people get this—here’s a Time story that’s as an example—but too many don’t, especially in the press, which follows the tech industry like a marketing arm instead of an independent evaluator.

One more point: PCs are still better for some tasks. Maybe not for browsing Facebook and YouTube, but anything that requires a keyboard isn’t just better on a computer—it’s way better. Maybe students are going to write papers on iPads or iPad-like devices, but I’m skeptical, and even if one has a couple of substantial text-writing efforts a year, it’s going to be tempting to keep a keyboard around. I could be crazy; people are apparently writing novels on cell phones in Japan and now other countries, but producing a novel on a phone doesn’t sound appetizing from the perspective of either the writer, who can’t really get in the zone over the course of a hundred words, or the reader, who has to endure writing from someone who doesn’t appear to, say, go back and edit their novel as a coherent whole. Most people don’t seem to much like 19th Century novels that were published serially, and I think “lack of editing” and “lack of brevity” might be two reasons, and the first will probably come back to haunt cell phone novelists.

Then again, looking at the bestseller lists, maybe there isn’t much to go but down.

PCs and other form factors are going to coexist. Again, it’s not as sexy a story, but it’s also a more true one. In one Hacker News comment thread “jeffreymcmanus” observed, “People don’t stop buying the old stuff just because there’s new stuff. See also: horses, bicycles, cars.” Well, people have mostly stopped buying horses, because cars offer superior functionality in virtually all circumstances, but the point remains. Another commenter, “mcantelon,” said:

Yeah, which is why the “post-PC” terminology has a propaganda tone. It’s not going to be “post-PC”: more like “pop computing” or “computing lite”.

He’s right. Which is okay: I have nothing against tablets, cell phones, and so forth. Use whatever works. Just don’t pretend PCs are going away or automatically declining.


See also this post on whether you should buy a laptop or desktop and this related post on the reliability of each form factor.

Desktop PCs aren’t going anywhere, despite the growth of phones and tablets, because they’re cheap

Articles like “As PCs Wane, Companies Look to Tablets” are both true and bogus. PCs aren’t going anywhere because they’re cheap. You can buy them reasonably close to cost. If you want the least expensive means of computing possible, you can’t beat PCs now and won’t be able to for years, at the very earliest. Sure, “making them has not been a great business for most American companies for almost a decade,” but that’s because consumers are deriving so much surplus from PCs. PCs are close to commodities, which is great for buyers, if not sellers.

The industry, the reporters who cover the industry, bloggers, and other people with a stake in the action want you to believe “TABLETS TABLETS TABLETS ARE COOL!!!!” because they want you to buy relatively high-margin tablets (and they need something write about). Current tablets are high-margin because they combine commodity hardware with OS lock-in. The industry wants to move closer to Apple’s model, since Apple gets away with what it does because a) it has great design and b) for a long time, and maybe up to the present, OS X was more fun and in some respects better designed than Windows. Lock-in and high margins? What’s not to love from a business perspective?

It’s not very much fun for journalists and bloggers who drive these stories about PCs to write, “Area man continues to derive immense intellectual, social, and efficiency value from the PC he bought five years ago and which continues to meet his needs adequately.” I wouldn’t read that story or post either. The tech press needs to find hype and trends. Tablets and cell phones are of course genuinely big deals and their impact will continue to reverberate—but just because one sector is waxing doesn’t mean another is automatically waning. Especially when that sector offers a lot of value for the money.

So: every time you see a call for tablet computing, regardless of its source, you should remember that somewhere behind it, there’s a manufacturer who wants to sell you more stuff at higher prices. Paul Graham calls such beasts “the Submarine,” and if you want to understand how you’re being marketed to, you should read that essay. The PC manufacturer can’t really sell you more stuff in PC laptops and desktops these days because they’re too inexpensive and interchangeable. Apple can sell you design and an unusual operating system.

Maybe Lenovo can charge above-average prices because of the Thninkpad’s reputation for durability, but that’s it. Everyone else is scrambling because consumers dominate producers when it comes to PCs. So we get stories like the one above; and, if, as Tyler Cowen speculates in this example, the U.S. economic model moves closer to Japan and capital depreciates, expect to see even more calls for tablets and so forth. Anything to avoid acknowledging that an existing stock of capital is Good Enough.

And you can expect to see misleading headlines like the one above. It’s frustrating to read stuff like this:

Computer makers are expected to ship only about 4 percent more PCs this year than last year, according to IDC, a research firm. Tablets, in contrast, are flying off store shelves. Global sales are expected to more than double this year to 24.1 million, according to Forrester Research.

How does an increase in the absolute number and the percentage of PCs sold an indicating of waning? I think that means computer makers will ship over a hundred million units, compared to a quarter as many tablets. I checked out Dell’s website, and one can buy a very nice Inspiron desktop with a dual-core AMD processor, 3 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB hard drive for about $400. Get a cheapie 20″ monitor, and you’ve got a very competent machine that’ll run Windows passable well for under $600. Get a sweet 24″ IPS monitor as good or better than the one in my 2007 24″ iMac for another $500, and you’re still under $1,000. That’s why desktops aren’t going anywhere and all this blah blah blah about tablets is important but also overrated by tech sites chasing the new shiny but who also think that everyone has, if not an unlimited budget, then at least a very substantial one for technical toys. Given my work, it’s probably not surprising that I have a higher-than-average budget for technical toys and tools, since I use my computer every day and often for very long stretches, but for people who aren’t writers, hackers, day traders, pornographers, and the like, having an expensive computer and a tablet and a phone is, if not overkill, then at least overpriced.

Some people get this—here’s a Time story that’s as an example—but too many don’t, especially in the press, which follows the tech industry like a marketing arm instead of an independent evaluator.

One more point: PCs are still better for some tasks. Maybe not for browsing Facebook and YouTube, but anything that requires a keyboard isn’t just better on a computer—it’s way better. Maybe students are going to write papers on iPads or iPad-like devices, but I’m skeptical, and even if one has a couple of substantial text-writing efforts a year, it’s going to be tempting to keep a keyboard around. I could be crazy; people are apparently writing novels on cell phones in Japan and now other countries, but producing a novel on a phone doesn’t sound appetizing from the perspective of either the writer, who can’t really get in the zone over the course of a hundred words, or the reader, who has to endure writing from someone who doesn’t appear to, say, go back and edit their novel as a coherent whole. Most people don’t seem to much like 19th Century novels that were published serially, and “lack of editing” and “lack of brevity” might be two reasons. The first will probably haunt cell phone novelists.

Then again, looking at the bestseller lists, maybe there isn’t much to go but down.

PCs and other form factors are going to coexist. Coexistence is a less sexy story than death, but it’s truer. In one Hacker News comment thread “jeffreymcmanus” observed, “People don’t stop buying the old stuff just because there’s new stuff. See also: horses, bicycles, cars.” Well, people have mostly stopped buying horses, because cars offer superior functionality in virtually all circumstances, but the point remains. Another commenter, “mcantelon,” said:

Yeah, which is why the “post-PC” terminology has a propaganda tone. It’s not going to be “post-PC”: more like “pop computing” or “computing lite”.

He’s right. Which is okay: I have nothing against tablets or cell phones. Use whatever works. Just don’t pretend PCs are going away or automatically declining.

EDIT 2015: As of this edit I’m using a 27″ Retina iMac. The hardware is incredible. The best is still yet to come.


See also this post on whether you should buy a laptop or desktop and this related post on the reliability of each form factor.

%d bloggers like this: