Betting Big on the Camera

The camera's primary role has changed from capturing memories to becoming a full-fledged communication tool. Apple's recent $20 million acquisition of LinX serves as a reminder that the camera is positioned to be not only one of the most important smartphone components, but also a tool that will play a major role in how technology impacts society. Instead of betting on mobile platforms, a bet on the camera will likely pay more consistent dividends.

The Camera's Expanding Job Title

The camera's original use case was straightforward: capture memories. Moments in time ranging from a birthday party, graduation, or wedding were chronicled in order to tell a story in the future. Discretion was taken as to what subject or event should be captured as both film and the process of getting film developed were expensive. A week-long trip abroad would likely result in a splurge of maybe eight or nine rolls of film and a total of 200-300 pictures, of which a handful ended up being worth including in a photo album.

Everything changed in 2010 when Instagram was able to successfully position the photograph as a communication medium in the mobile era. Up to that point, phone cameras had been underwhelming with many people needing to carry both a phone and camera. In 2010, the world had just been introduced to the iPhone 4 and Android smartphones were starting to take off. In other words, it was the right time for something like Instagram to start pushing the camera beyond just memory capture.

Instagram's popularity was based on taking photographs with mediocre image quality and turning them into something cool by often making them look even older and grainier by applying fun filters. Users were then able to share their creations with others. In a world dominated by text-based Facebook and Twitter, Instagram represented a refreshing alternative. 

Instead of using our smartphone camera just to capture momentous occasions in life, we began to use them to capture everything from the breakfasts we ate, to the magazines and books that we read. The camera was turning into another pair of eyes, and an internet connection allowed others to see the world through those eyes. 

The camera's changing role wasn't confined to just software companies. With an initial mission to take photographs while surfing, GoPro was started as a way of have point-and-shoot cameras handle extreme environments. GoPro eventually experienced the same advancements in camera technology and social trends benefitting Instagram, where the camera was turning into a way of sharing unique vantage points and not just memory capture. The camera's expanded job title turned GoPro from a niche camera company into a $6 billion hardware and content company with even bigger plans of becoming a media powerhouse. 

Apple and the iPhone Camera

We now find ourselves in a world where cameras are becoming ever more capable in a smaller footprint. Apple's LinX acquisition is all about multi-aperture cameras, suggesting the desire to fit more power in a smaller form factor using sensors and software to capture multiple images simultaneously. The result is better quality, and more importantly, depth and three-dimensional capabilities.

We have reached the point where the camera found in one's smartphone is likely to be the best camera they have ever owned. As Apple continues to push the boundaries on iPhone innovation, the camera will be positioned as one of the likely components that will not only drive iPhone upgrades, but expand the iPhone's use case. While the camera has been used by third-party developers to accomplish various tasks such as scanning barcodes in stores or using augmented reality to display travel directions or public transit, Apple's primary near-term goal will be to improve the camera's ability to take photos and video in various settings to foster an even greater reliance on non-text communication. 

Cameras in the Future

Three primary use cases demonstrate how the camera will continue to change the world.

Memory Organization. While we will still use cameras to capture important moments in our lives, much of the focus will be on the software required to navigate the thousands of pictures found on our smartphones, likely taking up precious phone storage if we haven't signed up for a photo cloud service. New capabilities to catalog photographs as they are taken and then search through old digital photographs will serve as features deserving of a keynote slide or two. I suspect Apple and other software companies would be able to contribute much in this area in the coming years, assuming they give the topic enough attention and resources. One issue is that memory capture is simply unable to grab the hearts and minds like it once did. This area will not entice the high valuations from venture capitalists as memory capture has more of a connection to yesterday than the future. While we will still have start-ups trying to fill the niche, the camera's bright future isn't built around simply capturing memories.  

Communication. The camera's new functionality as a communication tool is impacting billions of lives, drawing a great deal of attention from investors and users. It is all too obvious by Snapchat's success and the modern-day mobile video boom including Periscope, Meerkat, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and various messaging platforms, that the world has moved beyond text to tell stories. Photographs and video are occupying a larger role in our daily lives which by its very nature reduces the desire to hold on to so many reminders of relative mundane aspects of our day, summing up Snapchat's appeal.  

Interpretation. While there is still plenty of innovation left with how we use cameras to communicate with others, the camera's most exciting role will be utilizing software to help us interact with and navigate the world. The camera will become an input device for software to interpret clues in various settings at home, the office, or school. The camera essentially becomes a pair of intelligent eyes that goes beyond simple image capture.

The camera's changing role has brought up important discussions concerning how technology impacts humanity. With some companies selling the idea to film one's entire day by wearing cameras on the face or body, questions around privacy and morality will need to be addressed. At what point does obtrusive technology do more harm than good? 

The camera discussion has usually been about Kodak, and other camera companies from yesterday, missing the mobile bandwagon. We have now moved to a point where such a story is no longer relevant. The software that turned cameras into critical pieces of communication would have never have been created by traditional camera makers. The camera's potential was unleashed by mobile as smartphones were primarily cameras with a mobile connection. The camera's ability to not only capture the world around us, but begin interpreting that world, suggests the camera's impact on society is still being underestimated. There's still time to place a big bet that the camera will play a much bigger role in our lives in the future. 

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