By Miyoung Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung Electronics Co is taking aim at its Japanese rivals with an Android-powered digital camera that allows users to swiftly and wirelessly upload pictures to social networking sites.
The Galaxy camera lets users connect to a mobile network or Wi-Fi to share photographs and video without having to hook up the camera to a computer.
While it's not the first to the market, Samsung's financial and marketing clout suggest it could be the biggest threat to Japanese domination of a digital camera industry which research firm Lucintel sees growing to $46 billion by 2017 and where big brands include Canon Inc, Sony Corp, Panasonic Corp, Nikon Corp and Olympus Corp.
"Samsung has a tough row to hoe against the likes of Canon and Nikon in the camera brand equity landscape," said Liz Cutting, senior imaging analyst at research firm NPD Group. "Yet as a brand known more in the connected electronic device arena, Samsung has a unique opportunity to transfer strength from adjacent categories into the dedicated camera world."
The Korean group, battling for mobile gadget supremacy against Apple Inc, is already a global market leader in televisions, smartphones and memory chips.
Samsung last year brought its camera and digital imaging business - one of its smallest - under the supervision of JK Shin, who heads a mobile business that generated 70 percent of Samsung's $7.4 billion third-quarter profit.
"Our camera business is quickly evolving ... and I think it will be able to set a new landmark for Samsung," Shin said on Thursday at a launch event in Seoul. "The product will open a new chapter in communications - visual communications," he said, noting good reviews for the Samsung Galaxy camera which went on sale in Europe and the United States earlier this month.
AIMING AT 'PRO-SUMERS'
The Galaxy camera, which sells in the United States for $499.99 through AT&T with various monthly data plans, features a 4.8-inch LCD touchscreen and a 21x optical zoom lens. Users can send photos instantly to other mobile devices via a 4G network, access the Internet, email and social network sites, edit photos and play games.
The easy-to-use camera, and the quality of the pictures, is aimed at mid-market 'pro-sumers' - not quite professional photographers but those who don't mind paying a premium for user options not yet available on a smartphone - such as an optical, rather than digital, zoom, better flash, and image stabilization.
The appeal of high picture quality cameras with wireless connection has grown as social media services such as Facebook Inc drive a boom in rapid shoot-and-share photos.
"At a price point higher than some entry-level interchangeable-lens cameras, the Galaxy camera should appeal to a consumer willing to pay an initial and ongoing premium for 24/7 creative interactivity," said Cutting.
Traditional digital camera makers are responding.
Canon, considered a leader in profitability in corporate Japan with its aggressive cost cutting, saw its compact camera sales eroded in the most recent quarter by smartphones, and has just introduced its first mirrorless camera to tap into a growing market for small, interchangeable-lens cameras that rival Nikon entered last year.
Nikon has also recently introduced an Android-embedded Wi-Fi only camera.
($1 = 1086.4000 Korean won)
(This story fixes typing error in paragraph 9)
(Additional reporting by Dhanya Skariachan in NEW YORK; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)