Editorial: Do Android cameras have a place in the market?
With Samsung’s announcement of the Android-based Galaxy Camera and Nikon’s recent announcement of its own Android point-and-shoot Coolpix 800c, camera manufacturers are beginning to adopt Android to differentiate and iterate their products. It’s worthwhile asking – should they? And should you buy one? This editorial delves into why camera manufacturers are beginning to release smart cameras, and whether they really make sense for the consumer in the end.
When one looks at the camera market and the smartphone market in recent years, it’s easy to see why camera manufacturers are looking towards Android as part of their future. Cameras in smartphones have advanced rapidly since the first VGA cameras in mobile phones; today, phones like the HTC One X and Sony Xperia S have excellent image quality and software interfaces. Besides the technical improvements in sensor and image processing, the presence of photo editing apps like Instagram, Snapseed and Pixlr-o-matic (amongst others) and the connected nature of smartphones means it is far easier for people to capture and share their photos on a smartphone than with a traditional point-and-shoot. The end result is clear: smartphones like the iPhone have become the most-represented camera on Flickr and other photo sharing sites, and point-and-shoot sales have declined steadily as consumers realise their smartphone is more convenient and often “good enough” in quality.
This isn’t merely smartphones eating the camera makers’ market share, either; camera manufacturers have run out of other ways to differentiate their devices. Consumers have become wary of the megapixel race, the zoom race (do you *really* need 40x zoom in your camera?) and the “let’s-make-a-new-model-every-three-months-just-to-have-a-new-model” race. Without other new innovations or new features, the Canons and Nikons of the world would struggle as consumers simply use their smartphone cameras instead.
Enter Android. On cameras.
With these so-called “smart, connected cameras”, manufacturers like Nikon and Samsung (and eventually, I suspect, other players like Canon, Olympus, Fuji, and others) are making the case for owning a dedicated camera by giving it the same (or similar) convenience as photography on a phone, but with better image quality. The pitch for dedicated cameras running Android is quite clear – smartphone cameras, while improving, still perform poorly in low light, have weak or non-existent flashes, and often have slow and imperfect auto focus. A dedicated Android camera would have the advantage of a proper zoom lens, better auto focus, a dedicated shutter key, and a larger sensor (leading to better low-light image quality), with the added bonus of editing and sharing higher-quality images in-camera.
The problems with this pitch are several. Firstly, smartphone cameras, with the latest generation of in-built cameras, have arguably reached (or are close to) the point where they are “good enough” for the majority of consumers. This is how the portable media player market eventually died – smartphones delivered the same functionality without the burden of carrying a separate device. Secondly, there are concerns with hardware compatibility (particularly the different types of sensors and lens assemblies used in point-and-shoot cameras compared to phones), though these are not as difficult to overcome. Thirdly, consumers take instant start-up times for granted in modern cameras, and the time required to boot a full mobile operating system such as Android is still a snail’s pace compared to the lightweight embedded operating environments of dedicated cameras. Finally, with more layers of software and firmware in an Android-based camera compared to current cameras comes a greater likelihood of instability and crashing (though, of course, existing cameras aren’t immune to them either).
Another relevant issue to point out is that the majority of camera manufacturers (with the exception of Samsung) have little to no experience with making Android devices. Nikon’s Coolpix 800c shows this; it’s running a severely outdated version of Android with little customisation. The first generation of Android cameras are likely to be somewhat buggy, or otherwise delivering a less-than-optimal experience for the consumer.
Moreover, it seems that, because consumers have reached the point where smartphone cameras are “good enough” to replace point-and-shoots, sales have moved towards the mirror-less or DSLR categories where the sensors are orders of magnitude larger and image quality proportionally better than compact cameras. Without widening the image quality gap between point-and-shoots and smartphones, the majority of consumers are unlikely to see Android point-and-shoot cameras as different enough from their Android phones or other smartphones to carry a second small camera; and consumers who are looking for a dedicated camera are more likely to purchase a larger camera such as a mirror-less camera or full-sized DSLR. Of course, camera manufacturers can also put Android on these larger cameras, but the development time on these usually spans 3-4 years or more, far longer than the release cycle of new mobile OSes.
In the end, I don’t think dedicated Android point-and-shoot cameras will do extraordinarily well; ultimately, they’re too similar in functionality to what’s out there for consumers to flock to them. However, since they do provide an case that makes sense to at least some consumers out there who are looking for a dedicated point-and-shoot, it’s likely that camera manufacturers will continue making them to sustain the point-and-shoot market.