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Can Android spark new life for the point-and-shoot camera?

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The digital photography industry has been experiencing some change – that’s probably the nicest way to say it. The smartphone camera and the rise of third-gen cameras have squeezed this industry into a rather uncomfortable position, and adapting is proving more difficult than anyone expected.

Of course, the fact that traditional digital photography is feeling some pain at the hands of the mobile market isn’t entirely because of smartphones’ increasingly competent cameras. It’s the entire OS setup and app ecosystem that are such a threat. The smartphone camera has come to mean more options and outlets for people who probably only used to take red-eye out of pictures. Now, you can instantly airbrush anyone, alter saturation, crop, throw in filters, create panoramas… these are only the most basic things you can do with some of the thousands of photo apps available.

Couple this with the ability to instantly post and share images, and camera makers are starting to sit up and take notice. Probably not as quickly as they should, however. Wi-Fi enabled cameras are only now hitting the mainstream, but that lone smartphone feature probably isn’t going to be good enough. Consumers want total convenience in all-in-one packages. Now it could very well be time to revisit camera firmware altogether.

The rise of the Android-powered camera?

sc1630It was recently revealed that Samsung and Panasonic are both investigating creating Android-powered digital cameras. They join Polaroid, which beat everyone to the punch with its SC1630 Smart Camera, what is arguably the first and biggest step toward phone-camera unity. We’ve been hounding Polaroid for some answers (and testing time) with the Android-based device, but the company has been quiet since CES. For good reason: the SC1630 Smart Camera is a hybrid if there’s ever been one, and hybrids come with complications (more on that in a minute).

“It is a clever end-around on the camera market,” says photographer Trey Ratcliff, who has predicted the coming end of DSLRs. “If those old Japanese-UI-masochists at Nikon, Canon, and Sony don’t watch out with their closed systems, the world of apps and innovation will crash their party.” Those names do have a strangle-hold over the camera industry, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get their come-uppance: Consumers are increasingly at ease with smartphones. The learning curve is shallow and they are built for constant and far-reaching usability.

Cameras on the other hand… have gotten better. And I am a stalwart defender of the digital camera – I in no way want to see the smartphone whittle away at this industry. But the industry took too long to adopt easy-to-master UIs for a wide range of camera users, and in the meantime we all become incredibly familiar with mobile OS navigation.

It’s difficult to say this, but Android-powered cameras make sense, most significantly applied to point and shoots. The mobile OS has become the interface of the people. Not only would Android-powered cameras open up a world of connected possibilities, they would open access to the apps our digital experience is very, very entrenched in.

It also creates potential to grow and specialize in the app-developer community. “It would be great to have a camera with Wi-Fi and an app ecosystem,” says Urban Airship CEO Scott Kveton (who tells me that while he owns a Canon 40D, his iPhone 4S is his “juggernaut”). “As an app developer, you could develop for the inherent nature of that device.”

“The key is going to be camera manufacturers and how they fill the ecosystem, because it’s really far from what they are doing right now,” he says.

The complications of connectivity

Adopting Android won’t come easily. Polaroid was likely quiet about the SC1630 at CES partially because the device’s label and launch details are up in the air. At the time, it wasn’t made explicitly clear whether the SC1630 had 3G phone capabilities (it does) and carrier affiliations hadn’t been released (as they still have not). Camera manufacturers would have to start looking into the mess that is data plans and carriers if it were going to make a real go at this. Not to mention the technical task of reassessing what the inner hardware would look like.

Promisingly, however, the SC1630 has been able to generate a healthy amount of interest despite how hushed Polaroid has been, and the lack of solid launch date and availability. Samsung executives were recently quoted by DPreview saying “once the cloud computing era truly dawns, a non-connected device will be meaningless. In that case, the camera will need real-time connectivity, and [carriers] are looking for devices like this.” So dealing with all the fine print is very likely going to be worth it for digital camera companies.

Because if they don’t do it, smartphone makers will. “Nokia just introduced a camera… that’s a phone,” says Kveton, referencing the 808 PureView phone with its 41-megapixel camera. It’s hardly the only company pumping up its image capture specs either. But I’m of the belief that names like Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Samsung, Panasonic, and Sony could (and should) do it better. Unfortunately these are old, old companies with deep roots, and change won’t necessarily come easy.

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