By Jeremy Wagstaff, Asia chief technology correspondent
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - While most attention in the gadget world is on the breakneck pace of innovation in mobile phones, tablets and computers, another device has resolutely refused to die: the camera.
Despite the onslaught of camera phones — the iPhone 4 has this year become the most popular device for posting snaps to the photo-sharing website Flickr — cameras are still being sold. Japan, the world's largest manufacturer, shipped nearly three times as many cameras in January as it did in the same month of 2003, when the camera phone was still in its infancy.
"For several years, it has been predicted that smartphone adoption would cut into digital camera sales," said Prashant Malaviya, Associate Professor of Marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. "In fact, the exact opposite has happened."
Driving this is a number of factors, analysts and enthusiasts say. And, while most point to a continuing role for cameras for both professional and personal users, the device's future is far from assured.
Firstly, photography is personal. We may be happy taking snaps with our cellphone or simple point-and-shoot camera, but it turns out that most of us won't entrust key memories to such basic devices. Surveys by NPD Group last November show that while more than a quarter of all American photos were taken by a smartphone, more people were buying cameras with detachable lenses or cameras with optical zooms of 10x or more.
This, says NPD Group senior digital imaging analyst Liz Cutting, is because those people taking important family photos don't want to trust them to a device that isn't up to the task. "Camera photography is certainly not dead," said Cutting. "We're just seeing a skewing towards what the smartphone can't deliver. People are recognizing that and are going for a higher end camera."
This in turn benefits the established players, because users are reluctant to entrust their photos to an untested brand. We may be ready to try out a new brand of cellphone, laptop or TV, but when it comes to family snaps we're more conservative. "It's part of who you are, showing the kind of brand of camera you have," Cutting said. "But it's also trusting the quality of that memory because that's how you remember your life."
This has helped entrench several key players, some of whom have dominated the scene for a generation or more — Canon Inc, Nikon Corp, Sony Corp, Olympus Corp, Pentax, Fuji and Panasonic Corp.
Canon has been one of the main beneficiaries of this, maintaining a strong brand from the professional high end to the point-and-shoot bottom, says Christopher Chute, global imaging chief at International Data Corp. Canon has seen its camera business grow as the proportion of its overall sales to more than 25 percent in 2008 from below 11 percent in 1999. In a survey of more than a quarter of a million users of Ontario-based gadget website Sortable.com, Canon was the most popular brand, with a third of the vote.
Not that its rivals are standing idle.
Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax and Nikon have in the past few years launched a new kind of camera that matches the quality of lenses of a professional model with the sleek, light body of a pocket, point-and-shoot device. Although these mirrorless cameras aren't a lot cheaper than the professional digital single lens reflex (DSLR) model, they are lighter and more compact.
This has won them fans among both those trading up and those looking to replace or supplement their professional gear. Ong Hock Chuan, a hobbyist who runs a Jakarta public relations company, recently sold his heavier Canon EOS 50D for a mirrorless Sony NEX-7. Price wasn't a factor. "I was tired of lugging around an SLR and getting a hernia for it," he said. Canon has yet to announce a mirrorless model.
Not only are camera manufacturers seeking an edge over each other: They're battling the encroachment of camera phones on to their territory.
At the bottom, Nokia and other mobile manufacturers have long partnered with lens makers like Carl Zeiss to improve the quality of photographs and phones, a trend which has meant many mobile phones now do a better job of a point-and-shoot camera. The appeal of the camera phone has also grown as social media services like Facebook make it possible to share a photo with friends and family as soon as it's taken.
This leaves the compact point-and-shoot camera segment of the market vulnerable.
In markets such as the United States and Japan, says Japan-based IHS analyst Kun Soo Lee, there's not many more people who want to buy one. On the one hand, this is eating into sales that Canon and others traditionally dominated. On the other, the ease with which photos can be taken on a phone is feeding an interest in taking better photos, expanding the middle of the market into a "pro-sumer" segment of devices which cost a bit more but offer the user options so far unavailable on the mobile phone: An optical, rather than digital, zoom, for example, better flash, and image stabilization.
This is driving manufacturers to push more and better technology from their upper end models into cheaper devices. Prices have fallen dramatically in the past decade, says Mark Walters of U.S.-based website TechBargains.com. Ten years ago a 3-megapixel DSLR camera would cost $3,000; now a better quality 18-megapixel DSLR can be found for less than $500. "The technology that has trickled down into the more consumer-targeted DSLRs is incredible," he said.
Lowering prices and raiding the technologies of formerly professional models is not without danger. "This pricing strategy has certainly caused some cannibalization of sales at the higher end for the likes of Canon and Nikon," said Walters, "but they make up for it with volume at the low end by selling more critical accessories like lenses and flashes."
Manufacturers are also competing through innovation.
Apart from mirrorless cameras, there have been improvements in sensors and a technology called high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, which layers images at different exposures. "There's an amazing amount of innovation in digital photography equipment at the moment," said Melbourne-based Sydney Low, a former Internet entrepreneur who now takes sports photos for a living. "More so in many ways than Apple, HP and other computer manufacturers."
While enthusiasts like Low believe that still cameras will eventually be replaced by video cameras — from which scenes can be grabbed — others believe that eventually mobile phone and camera will start to look and feel more like each other.
A range of cameras launched in the past few months, said NPD In-Stat's Cutting, have for the first time included WiFi chips, making it possible for users to share their photos much as a smartphone user might. "It has to be easy, and we haven't hit that yet," she said.
Just as the camera gets smaller and more sociable, so will the mobile phone evolve to incorporate features presently only available on a camera. IHS's Kun said the introduction of 12 megapixel cameras into smartphones, for example, is a "kicker to change the market."
Then, said J. Gerry Purdy of cellphone analysts MobileTrax, there's Polaroid's SC1630, announced in January and due to be launched this year: an Android device with an optical zoom. These and other innovations, Purdy said, may usher in a future where a smartphone camera "will perform as well as today's digital cameras with large optical zoom and larger lenses." California-based Pelican Imaging Corp, for example, promises a camera that will improve image and video quality while allowing for thinner smartphones.
How traditional players react to these challenges is unclear. Canon, for example, has no obvious strategy to combat the rise of the smartphone, said IHS's Kun, and so will have to keep on peddling digital cameras. In the meantime other technologies may arise either inside or outside the industry.
Says IDC's Chute: "Everything is up in the air."
(The story is filed to correct company affiliation of NPD's Liz Cutting)
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)