A few months ago, I started thinking about buying a compact camera. My friends thought I was crazy; after all, my smartphone has a pretty good camera. But I wanted advanced features such as the ability to change the speed and aperture, features that often belong on a DSLR, rather than a compact camera, and especially not on a smartphone camera. Except, of course, I’m wrong, while my phone may not be able to change aperture, I can certainly play with the speed and get many of the effects that I’m looking for.
Misguided as I was in my desire to buy more tech gadgets, I did come to realize something about my smartphone: it’s really hard to find, and use, all of the features hidden below the surface. Of course, not all of the new features, especially on the camera side, are hidden away and it’s clear that the phone’s camera is still one of the biggest selling points for new devices. Indeed, we can expect that at Mobile World Congress later this month, camera functionality, especially combined with artificial intelligence, will be frequently cited as the next huge innovation by manufacturer after manufacturer.
But does it matter?
The history of smartphones is full of camera innovation that didn’t result in significant sales boosts for the OEM. Take, for example, one of my favorite smartphones of all time, the Nokia Lumia 1020 with its 41 megapixel camera. While other smartphones talked about pre-photo zoom capability, the Lumia allowed users to take photos first, and choose to zoom in later, cropping the picture however you wanted. And yet, it wasn’t enough to save Nokia… or even noticeably impact sales, frankly. Super slow-motion video is also likely to be talked about at this year’s MWC, with Samsung rumored to be adding that feature into the upcoming Galaxy S9. Super slow-motion is a cool feature, and will make Samsung the second OEM to launch it (Sony added that feature at last year’s MWC). And yet, Sony, with a year’s advantage, didn’t make a big impact in the U.S. market, which is a shame.
But despite the fact that smartphone cameras may have advanced as far as many consumers need, there are benefits to the ever-evolving technology. Most importantly, as visual recognition becomes more important for security, better cameras, and the underlying AI, make this a more usable service. But perhaps the real benefit is for marketing and promotional reasons, with most phones running the same OS (Android), and looking fairly similar, the camera provides a potential differentiator. That’s why many smartphone ads focus on beautiful landscape shots taken with the phone, demonstrating that the technology within can provide stunning photos for all to share.
And so, back to the upcoming Mobile World Congress, we can expect that the camera will once again be heavily featured by the OEMs. LG is expected to launch an updated version of its V30 device with an AI-based camera solution, while Samsung’s new S9 is rumored to have a slew of new camera enhancements. And these will just be the tip of the iceberg for the camera noise, which will all be received enthusiastically by the attending media. But will it make a significant impact on the consumer market in the longer term? Probably not.