The internet was only a few years old when Kahn started experimenting with a web server that could send photos and texts through email notifications in 1996 and 1997. “Remember it was 1996/97, the web was very young and nothing like this existed,” Kahn wrote in a blog post celebrating the anniversary. “The server architecture that I had designed and deployed is in general the blueprint for all social media today: Store once, broadcast notifications, and let people link back on demand and comment.”
Kahn had the server infrastructure functional when his wife went into labor but didn’t yet have a way to interface between the phone in the laptop. When the doctors told the couple they had some time before the baby would arrive, the dad-to-be and future father of smartphone photography went out to his car and pulled out a StarTAC speakerphone kit and had the system ready before their daughter took her first breath. The first photo taken by a smartphone, measuring just 320 by 240 pixel images, was sent to 2,000 people when baby Sophie was just fifteen minutes old.
That very first photo wasn’t taken with the integrated cameras that we use today, but Kahn’s mess of cables inspired him to continue refining the idea until the first camera phone was produced in Japan in 1999 and the first camera phone in the U.S., LightSurf, was produced in 2002. After the success of his experiment, Kahn actually went to Kodak and Polaroid and pitched the idea, but was turned down, with each company concluding that phones would be focused on voice.
Kahn notes that other companies put camera sensors inside phones, but what made his tech different was the cloud-based infrastructure that allowed those photos to be shared instantly, which is why Kahn called his feature Instant Picture Mail.
Now, Kahn’s daughter Sophie is in college and nearly half of the photos uploaded to Flickr are taken by smartphone cameras. Thankfully, sharing an instant digital photo no longer requires a camera, laptop, and smartphone, but much of the server architecture actually remains the same, Kahn says.
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