Archive for Monday, February 25, 2002

but at a price

February 25, 2002


They're seen by some as shockingly expensive, intimidatingly complex and inferior to traditional technology.

Others view them as versatile, cutting-edge and incredibly convenient.

But while the debate rages, digital cameras have been making steady gains in America's households.

According to IDC Research, digital camera sales in the United States grew from 1 million units in 1998 to 7.6 million in 2000.

The technology marketing research firm had projected sales of 8.6 million digital cameras this year but scaled that back to 7.6 million, primarily because of the economic downturn.

That compares with the estimated 15 million film cameras sold in the United States every year, a figure that doesn't take into account the millions of disposable cameras that pass through consumers' hands.

Traditional camera companies such as Kodak, Olympus, Fuji, Nikon and Canon, as well as consumer electronics stalwarts such as Sony, Hewlett-Packard and Epson, are staking out turf in the digital camera field.

Fans of digital cameras point to the instant gratification they get from shooting a picture and then seeing it on a screen on the back of the camera.

They delight in the fact that they can delete bad pictures right in the camera, store the keepers on a computer, e-mail them to friends and even print them out at home. Because digital cameras don't use film, their fans brag that they never have to worry about burning through expensive rolls of film.

Still, the majority of Americans are happy with traditional cameras and likely will remain so for at least the next five years, said IDC Research analyst Chris Chute.

Navigating the newness

In a sense it's like the PC was 15 years ago: People then saw computers as expensive and complex replacements for the reliable typewriter and adding machine.

"The biggest obstacle for digital cameras is customer education," said Amy Wiyninger, who follows the digital camera market for ARS Inc., a technology market research firm. "People think, 'My film camera still works. Why should I pay $500 for a camera I don't know how to use or get prints out of?'"

Indeed, consumers face a bewildering array of options when it comes to getting the pictures out of the camera. Among the choices:

 Transferring the photos to a computer via cable.

 Taking the memory card, where the photos are stored, out of the camera and inserting it in a card reader, which transfers the images to the computer.

 Linking the camera directly to a printer via a cable and printing the photos on special paper.

 Slipping the memory card into a special slot in the printer.

 Dropping the memory card off at the camera store and letting the employees produce the prints.

By contrast, those who use a film camera can just drop their film off at a photo finisher and pick up their prints an hour later. It's simple and it's familiar, unlike digital cameras.

One bit of relief is a technology called picture transfer protocol, which is contained in Microsoft's new Windows XP operating system and Apple's OS-X operating system.

The protocol makes it easier to transfer photos from a camera to a computer, simplifying the process for consumers. Most major camera makers have included the technology in their newest products.

"We think this will help customers get more out of their cameras," said Greg Young, director of Sony Corp.'s digital still-camera business unit. "They'll be less intimidated by the operation."

Cost and quality

Price is another hurdle.

While consumers can buy a very capable film camera for $200, they will have to spend perhaps twice as much for an equivalent digital camera.

Michelle Slaughter, an analyst for Boston-based InfoTrends, said prices on a few decent cameras have declined to the $200-$300 range, putting them in the ballpark for a reasonably large segment of the population.

"People who own a PC and are connected to the Internet are within an economic band of those who will be adopting digital cameras," she said.

Some argue that the higher cost of the cameras will eventually be recouped in savings on film and the fact that users can edit out bad pictures before they are ever printed.

But others point out that it costs about 10 cents more for 4-by-6-inch prints from a digital camera than a conventional one. The cost of making a print on a home printer is even higher after factoring in the cost of special paper and ink cartridges.

For 4-by-6 or even 5-by-7-inch prints, most people can't tell the difference between film and digital, but when the photos are blown up, the digital images generally aren't as crisp as those provided by film, experts say.

Still, as the technology improves, digital cameras will only get more popular, predicted Joe Meehan of Photo District News.

"It took 160 years for regular photography to mature," he said. "Digital photography is only six or eight years old."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.