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Cameras as Consumer Electronics



“The photo retailer is too ignorant to sell this camera,” said the product manager, fixing me with a defiant glare. Oh, really? What did the photo retailer need to know that he didn’t in order to sell this camera? “You need to understand computers,” he said, still defiantly (with the accent on “understand”), “and peripherals. The photo dealer doesn’t know a serial port from an SCSI.” And who would be qualified to sell this camera? I asked. “We’re going straight into the CE channel.” Computer stores? “Computer stores.”

We all suffer from the curse, or at least the blindspot, of judging others by ourselves. And my blindspot was I knew the difference between serial ports and SCSI. I knew about the NuBus and math co-processors and DOS syntax. Didn’t everybody?

I, after all, had been covering digital photography since 1976. I knew its potentials, and had spent the intervening 18 years encouraging their realization. Although the product manager’s new camera came nowhere near fulfilling them, it was a step in that direction.

So, what makes you think, I asked him, that computer stores know how to sell cameras?

His glare changed to a double-take, and he turned to the next reporter’s questions. If computers represented high finances in 1994, cameras were trinkets and beads. Everything the product manager was saying was said with authority. With mystique. Upholding the daring and rebellious and newfangled and futuristic, heralding the preordained and inevitable. He spoke as only a product manager from Apple could speak.

Speak, and act. And the product manager’s actions spoke even more loudly than words. He passed around his new camera, the Apple QuickTake, on the day of its worldwide intro. And we were at the PMA show.

But the real intro, the formal one, was a half-world away that day, in Japan. There was nothing on-floor at PMA. The U.S. intro was held in a small room in the convention center, attended by a handful of reporters like me. Rah, rah.

Trinkets and Beads at Maturity

The Apple QuickTake wasn’t the first consumer-market digicam, nor was it the product of technical genius and innovation out of Cupertino. It was all marketing schtick. The camera was made in Japan by Chinon, and just slightly disguised, it sold as the Dycam Pixtura and the Kodak DC40, too.

Could photo retailers sell it? Maybe they couldn’t, unless they could really keep a straight face. For its $800-or-so list price, it offered dismal resolution (640x480 pixels), weird colors (in random dots all over the frame), a non-zoom lens, and not much else. It gave the buyer little more than a ten-dollar single-use film camera did.

I take it back. The QuickTake gave the buyer plenty more. How about port conflicts, the anxieties of serial downloads to the PC, and frustrations of using computers in general, with their limited speed and capacity? Maybe the product manager was right. Computer stores in 1994 could sell it, because they were accustomed to selling headaches.

How different the landscape is today. It has been regraded by convergence, paved over by plug-and-play. What’s there to know about computers today? Turn them on, press the button, the toast pops up. If manufacturers could make blister-packs big enough, computers would be sold off the rack.

Last time I bought a computer (April ’06), not even the computer store needed to know about it. When I asked a couple of technical questions, they logged onto the manufacturer’s website and let me read the specs.

A few feet away were the cameras. And these were no Apple QuickTakes. The most modest of these were vastly more versatile than the priciest 35mm camera in 1994. The most advanced, the DSLRs, had hugely useful value-added features—in-body image-stabilization, dust-reduction, live-view monitors.

Along with their sophistication, however, the DSLRs bring all the baggage that the QuickTake left home. There’s aperture. There’s shutter speed. There’s ISO setting. There’s focal length. There’s depth-of-field. There’s shutter-priority AE. There’s aperture-priority AE. They’re all touted as features, but whatever for? Their influence was present, strictly speaking, in the QuickTake, too, but provoked no discussion. The QuickTake was so inept at dealing with them that the subject was ignored.

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