When Nikon's Coolpix S52c came across my desk for review a few weeks ago, I was excited to take it for a spin. Not so much because of the camera itself – the S52's predecessors have historically been somewhat pedestrian little pocket cameras – but because of the one feature it boasts that no other camera currently on the market save the Panasonic Lumix TZ50 can claim: wireless image transfer using Wi-Fi.
Which got me thinking, where are all the cameras with built-in Wi-Fi?
A few years ago, a handful of manufacturers were dabbling with integrating the relatively new Wi-Fi communication protocol into their cams as a means of uploading images to users' computers or directly to the internet. Fast-forward several years, and the current state of affairs is basically unchanged: currently, two OEMs (plus third-party developer Eye-Fi) are playing with integrated Wi-Fi technology. Somewhere along the way, it seems, technological growth and advancement in this area got derailed. With rapid changes in how we store and share our images afoot, however, it seems to me that getting back on track and pushing wireless transfer development may prove to be central to the longterm viability of the pocket camera industry, especially.
There's a new study seemingly every week reporting on how Facebook and Flickr have fundamentally changed the way the majority of photographers save and present the shots they've taken – and have done so in record time. Camera phone makers get this, and the parallel explosion in device-integrated cameras can be seen as both a result of the way we interact with our pictures as well as a driving force behind the shift to online-only images.
In fact, the one industry that's still pretending that the majority of images taken will eventually end up as prints is the digital camera industry. It seems that if they really understood the shifts that have taken place and are taking place in their own market, camera manufacturers would be working furiously to develop convenient solutions for getting images directly from cameras to the internet.
After some initial setup hang-ups, I've been pretty satisfied with the Wi-Fi implementation in our Coolpix S52c test cam. In the limited field playing the wireless transfer game at the moment, the relative simplicity of Nikon's approach probably makes it the best option out there at the moment for integrated Wi-Fi. But to say that even the best wireless-enabled compact camera is nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of seamlessness, flexibility, and ease of use is no overstatement: if anything, technology in the latest Wi-Fi equipped cameras is more intentionally crippled than ever – primarily, it seems, in the interest of selling subscription access to some laughably limited hotspot network (T-Mobile's, in the case of the Nikon). With its limited ability to hop onto free public Wi-Fi, even if you pay for hotspot access with your S52c, camera phone users still have you beat for coverage area at a rate of about 10,000 to one.
Camera-based Wi-Fi still seems like a novelty because no one has yet pushed technological development beyond the "novelty" phase. But in my mind, the formula for building a successful, seriously useful wireless-enabled digicam really isn't that complex. First and foremost, connection interfaces need to be vastly simplified: connecting my camera to Wi-Fi anywhere should be at least as quick and easy as connecting my computer is now. A simple browser for agreeing to terms of service and navigating the splash pages found used to access many free public networks is a must. Stronger wireless radios would also help, and using best-available battery technology to assure that users will be able to upload more than a handful of shots before the camera conks out will be crucial as well.
The resulting device wouldn't be cheap, but even if the camera itself creates images of average quality, the connectivity improvements alone would drive sales of the package. Couple this kind of wireless integration with an excellent pocket-sized camera and you'd have a truly premium device that people would be willing to pay a premium for. And if the OEMs want to partner to sell subscription wireless access as an add-on, why not make it some kind of limited access to cell-phone data networks that would allow users to send web-res shots directly from their camera to friends or upload them to the 'net from practically anywhere? Sure, there would be technical challenges to solve, but not insurmountable ones.
The transition to the internet as the preferred photo storage and sharing medium for an entire generation of photographers ultimately mean that it may be "evolve or die" time for a considerable chunk of the point-and-shoot market. It's not likely that cell-phone cameras are going to outmode ultrazooms or advanced compacts. But the thought that in-phone cameras could one day in the not so distant future provide image quality that rivals that from a pocket digicam is looking less like a pipedream and more like a possibility by the day. In the last year, even, we've seen an upswing in investment and advancement centered around integrated imaging technologies that few could have seen coming a few years ago.
Clearly, phone manufacturers aren't sitting still when it comes to developing improved imagers and optics. So why, more than a decade into the full-on digital revolution, do camera manufacturers still appear to be stalled out in improving connectivity?
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