May 21, 2007
Ten years of camera phones

I have four things to say about this story about the ten-year anniversary of the invention of the camera phone:

"It's had a massive impact because it's just so convenient," said Philippe Kahn, a tech industry maverick whose other pioneering efforts include the founding of software maker Borland, an early Microsoft Corp. antagonist.

"There's always a way to capture memories and share it," he said. "You go to a restaurant, and there's a birthday and suddenly everyone is getting their camera phones out. It's amazing."

If Kahn feels a bit like a proud father when he sees people holding up their cell phones to snap pictures, there's good reason: He jury-rigged the first camera phone while his wife was in labor with their daughter.

"We were going to have a baby and I wanted to share the pictures with family and friends," Kahn said, "and there was no easy way to do it."

So as he sat in a maternity ward, he wrote a crude program on his laptop and sent an assistant to a RadioShack store to get a soldering iron, capacitors and other supplies to wire his digital camera to his cell phone. When Sophie was born, he sent her photo over a cellular connection to acquaintances around the globe.

A decade later, 41 percent of American households own a camera phone "and you can hardly find a phone without a camera anymore," said Michael Cai, an industry analyst at Parks Associates.

1. Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I worked for a company whose product worked with both Borland and Microsoft C (this was even before C++ was widely available for PCs). My first real exposure to computing religious wars was Borland versus Microsoft. And even back then, most people took the anti-Microsoft position. Not that it would help the value of your Borland stock today, of course.

2. I am in awe of someone who could jerryrig such a thing while in the maternity ward. I can only imagine what his wife thought of it.

3. I think I bought one of the last non-camera phones ever made.

Market researcher Gartner Inc. predicts that about 589 million cell phones will be sold with cameras in 2007, increasing to more than 1 billion worldwide by 2010.

Mix in the Internet's vast reach and the growth of the YouTube generation, and the ubiquitous gadget's influence only deepens and gets more complicated. So much so that the watchful eyes on all of us may no longer just be those of Big Brother.

"For the past decade, we've been under surveillance under these big black and white cameras on buildings and at 7-Eleven stores. But the candid camera is wielded by individuals now," said Fred Turner, an assistant professor of communications at Stanford University who specializes in digital media and culture.

4. When I was a kid, there was an invisible-to-me army of people who knew my parents or grandparents and could recognize my face. Never knowing for sure at any given time that I was not being watched helped keep my behavior more or less in line. As such, I'm as prepared for the world of ubiquitous cell phone cameras as anyone can be.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 21, 2007 to Technology, science, and math