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Lights, Camera Phones, Action!



Had anyone bet me a year ago that this year's buzz would be about camera phones, I might have gone for the farm. Yet, this is where it's at as such terms as Bluetooth, infrared and wi-fi quietly enter the lexicon of the minilabber.

The vision that literally tens of millions of these camera phones will be in the hands, hooked on belts and in the purses of Americans within the next year or two is somewhat mind boggling. It conjures up an image of folks capturing images spontaneously as the situation presents itself, rather than wishing they had a camera with them. ("If I only had a camera.") The youth market, especially, which seems to be melded with cell phones stuck to their ears, could result in a volcanic eruption of image taking.

According to Jill Aldort, InfoTrends, it is expected that camera phone shipments in North America will be just over nine million this year and jump to 25 million in 2006. Another research firm, IDC, forecasts 84 million camera phones in the U.S. by 2007. It is said that in 2003 worldwide camera phone sales, at 55 million, exceeded worldwide digital camera sales.

Just think of the number of images that might be taken when we start seeing so many camera phones. When you consider that, unlike cameras, people never let their phones beyond arm's reach, they could some day be taking many more images on cameras phones than are now being taken on film.

Kent McNeley, Kodak's VP consumer output, salivates at the opportunity. He said, "There is a potential to print billions of images that would otherwise have never been printed."

The big question, of course, is how many of these images will ever get printed. And, if so, where: home, online or in a retail site?

Not Ready for Prime Time...Yet

InfoTrends' Jill Aldort said a September, 2003 survey found that "many camera phone owners are printing several photos taken with their handset and more intend to in the future." Disturbing, however, was her report that 59% were printing at home and 28% online. She said, "Retail photofinishing was not given as an option as there were virtually no retail services available at the time of the survey." Oops.

Once again, the industry is faced with challenges: Can the on-site market equip itself to handle the needs of the camera phone user? Can the consumer be educated to the availability, desirability and convenience of on-site vs. home or on-line printing?

For APS, the film and camera folks moved much too quickly for the on-site processing industry. It took too long for minilab manufacturers to develop the necessary kits and equipment available for the on-site stores to process consumer APS film that the consumer was already shooting. Business was lost; worse, customers were lost. To say nothing of the investment involved for the minilabbers. In retrospect, for what?

Likewise, digital. The industry was caught short again with the consumer racing far ahead of the ability of the on-site industry to respond to the retail needs. We're still running to catch up. And fighting with our banker (or spouse) to justify the investment needed.

Along comes camera phones. For once, it seems that we have a chance to be ready in time. Camera phones are still in the infancy stage and most manufacturers in Las Vegas were already showing kiosks that will accept camera phone images. And it appears it will not be a budget buster for the retailer as kiosks are not financial backbreakers-and retro kits for existing kiosks might cost only a few hundred dollars.
Once equipped, however, the big challenge for the on-site industry will be no different than the one we've been battling for the last year or so with consumers who are taking pictures on their digital cameras: Hey, folks, bring your digital images in here for REAL photo processing. Forget expensive home printing; forget online pictures that may take a week to get back.
The battle is joined.

Manufacturers Starting To Jump on Board

Fuji seems to be taking the camera phone opportunity very seriously as one saw in their booth. John Prendergast, VP digital strategy, outlined five separate programs that Fuji has ongoing that are all camera phone related:

  1. An agreement with Sprint, one of the big players in camera phones, whereby Sprint camera phone users can send their images to the Sprint website, pictures.sprintpcs.com. Once at that site consumers will have the option of sharing pictures with friends or connecting to the Fuji Get The Picture website at digitalcameradeveloping.com where they can have prints made at a local Fuji Frontier dealer.
  2. All new Aladdin kiosks will be equipped with Bluetooth and infrared technology so that consumers can bring their phones into a dealer for print fulfillment from a Frontier or Printpix. Recent vintage Aladdins in the field can be retro-fitted with the technology.
  3. A new NP-1 Photo Printer, being sold only in Japan so far, is a battery operated portable printer, about five-inches square, that will accept camera infrared phone signals and output a credit-card size print on Fuji's Instax instant film. John sees this appealing to the youth market-big camera phone users.
  4. Get The Picture Mobile Print allows selection of images from the camera phone to be uploaded directly to the Fuji Get The Picture site. John said Fuji is discussing with handset manufacturers and carriers to get the necessary software pre-loaded or distributed to customers.
  5. Get The Picture Mobile Service, a photo management application that would allow images to be either sent directly to a consumer's PC or accessed from the PC to the handset or sent to Get The Picture site.

According to John, there are now 130 million cell phones in the USA. While only 4% are camera phone style, he said in Japan it's already about 80% and would expect it to grow similarly here.

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