Magazine Article


Parity Now! Oh. Not before 2003?



By Don Sutherland

July 2001

We hear tales of digicam sales exceeding the dollar volume of film cameras (35mm and APS) a year ago. Dollar volume and the economist's definition of wealth don't always jibe, but at least the whole thing gets people thinking. About wealth, that is. Everyone seems to agree the surest way of attaining it is to be in the right place at the right time. This naturally draws attention to the future as a topic of discussion. If it's true that digicams already eclipsed film cameras in wealth, when will they eclipse film cameras in unit sales? When will the number of digicams even equal the number of film cameras sold?
People at various leading camera companies cite a report not long ago, stating that sales parity will occur in 2003. While most agree it's an encouraging report, they tell me they think the date's optimistic. How about 2005?
Predicting the future has been the trickiest game of Russian Roulette in digital photography. When VGA was all the rage in 1996, who expected a 5.2-Megapixel Minolta for the prosumer in 2001, or a 6-MP Nikon pro SLR for five grand?
Combine that track-record with an emerging photofinishing infrastructure that finally makes digital photography as convenient as film for mass consumption. Now maybe there's grounds to target 2005 for parity. After all, it's 4/5 as long as there's even been a consumer market for digicams. Sounds like plenty of time to me.
If we can go up from 640x480 pixels to 2560x1920 in five short years, if we can go down from thirty grand to five, how much further would accumulated momentum push us through the next four?
And while it's pushing, why settle for parity? What if electronic photography can't put on its brakes, or won't, and steamrolls film flat? People have known that could happen anyday, for 43 years now!

Last month, for the very first time, we used a new portrait of the digital dude made by John Knaur of Olympus. This month, for the very second time, we offer another one. Are digital dude portraits by industry figures a new trend at PTN? Check back next month to find out. This one was taken by Steve Rosenbaum of S.I.R. Communications, during PC Expo, at Minolta's reception at Bowlmor Lanes in downtown NYC. Steve used a prototype Minolta Dimage 7, the first 5-MP digicam to reach the consumer market. Early tests reveal the new camera has noise-reduction systems that make it better than most in low light, a fact nicely illustrated here. Also illustrated: the digicam market is changing more quickly than anyone expected. Read on.

The implied demise of film is cataclysmic, a clap of thunder or a colossal thumb descending from the sky to squash it. Poof! "Film is dead." But in fact, film probably wouldn't go out with a bang. More like a whimper. An extended series of whimpers, as one after another its roles are usurped by digital until, at last, film becomes irrelevant.
Haven't we already begun seeing it happen? Hasn't the model already been carved in the form of large-format photography studios, the ones where all the fashion models go, where not only the economics of digital photography but the quality of it are generally conceded superior to film? If it happens on that high-level, big-time tier of the photography industry, how long before it trickles down to the household?
And even before film's final fade, wouldn't the industry have to consider its cost/benefit ratio? At what point do diminishing returns kick in, making it impractical to maintain any form of wet-processing system in the face of the digital climax? How long can film volume justify the floor space or the piping of film processors? Purists may insist that there's still a valid place for film in the world of tomorrow, even a critical place, and maybe they're right. There's possibly a valid place for super 8 Kodachrome in our digital world too, but how many labs can support it?
So if parity is scheduled for sometime around 2005, when should we expect to see a smoking hole in the ground where film used to be? 2010?
Looking nine years ahead is really tricky. If we look nine years back, we see the first digital photography product for the mass consumer, Kodak's Photo CD, only just coming out. And there are no digicams that cost less than a good car.
A lot can happen in nine years.
Not only does time seem to go faster, the leaps within each interval of time seem to get bigger. If we look to the future with the past as our guide, 2010 might as well be a thousand years from now.

No one can say how long it will take, before a ten-dollar digicam is on the market. But nobody seems to think it'll be here in 2003. Or even 2005. Chat with the product and marketing guys at places like Canon, Fujifilm, Olympus or Nikon, and you hear ambitions of a 2-MP digital camera with 3x zoom for $199. This is the anticipated portal through which the multitudes are predicted to flow.

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