Goodbye, Digital Camera; It Was Fun, But We’re Done

Article By : Bill Schweber

Change comes quickly and can make a hit new product obsolete faster than we anticipated, as the digital camera clearly demonstrates.

Change comes quickly and can make a hit new product obsolete faster than we anticipated, as the digital camera clearly demonstrates.

It’s hard to believe, but the iPhone just turned 10 years old in June. I won’t attempt a review of how that device, and smartphones in general, have transformed our lives, thought processes, and more: You can find plenty of that elsewhere. A recent well-written piece in The Wall Street Journal, “From Music to Maps, How Apple’s iPhone Changed Business,” was about as good as you’ll find, as were their companion pieces of the iPhone’s impact on personal life. The subhead of the business-focused article is a good summary; it reads, “Apple’s iPhone gave rise to whole new industries and laid waste to others.”

digital camera What really struck me was the speed at which smartphones have changed things and the speed at which the smartphones themselves have changed. It seems that in the 10 years since the iPhone’s introduction, so much of what we do, and what the phone does, has morphed with new features (some useful, some of dubious benefit), new ideas, new apps, and potential for new approaches.

One graph in the article really made clear the iPhone impact. It showed the sharp growth and then rapid decline in sales of standalone digital cameras, largely due to the use of smartphones as still-image and video-capture devices in place of those cameras (see figure below). The early consensus was that the image quality of the smartphone camera, with its tiny lens and mediocre CMOS image sensor, would not rival better digital cameras for the foreseeable future. But as we have seen so often with modern technology, that so-called “foreseeable future” doesn’t last as long as we think it will.

Digital camera sales

A fast rise but faster fall: Digital camera sales accelerated rapidly but dropped even more rapidly as smartphone adoption by users gained speed and its internal camera technology rapidly improved.

It wasn’t that many years ago when pundits and market researchers were forecasting exponential growth of the digital cameras, which, as you know, killed the film-based photo business and helped drive venerable Kodak into bankruptcy. All these seers criticized Kodak, saying that if only the company had been quicker to react and adopt the digital camera concept, they wouldn’t have lost out. Sorry: Even if Kodak had followed these sages, the company would have only bought a few years of grace and would still be in trouble because the window for the digital camera as business savior didn’t last very long.

It’s a similar story for the standalone GPS navigation units, as their sales rocketed, plateaued, and now have dropped sharply. The larger market for GPS now is in applications such as drone guidance and package/person tracking rather than personal navigation. There was a Dilbert strip a few years back that showed Dilbert with his full geek belt, wearing a cellphone, GPS, calculator, digital camera, MP3 player, and more; all that would now be in one smartphone.

This integration story itself is not unique to the smartphone; it’s just that the impact has reached a much wider span of people. When the first personal computers with significant processing and video capability came onto the market, and with available plug-in slots, those PCs soon became the box that replaced many standalone instruments. Of course, unlike the smartphone, that integration and replacement cycle primarily benefited the technical and scientific user, not the average person.

The underlying lessons here are simple: Change happens; it’s happening faster than most people expect. There’s a mutually resonating pattern of changes as products advance, which drives advances in user applications, which, in turn, further drive additional product improvements. Through it all, the future is hard to predict, and most forecasters and seers are wrong. Still, they are smart enough not to look back and dwell on their mistakes, which is probably a good thing.

Are there any short- or medium-term predictions that you thought were foolish at the time but actually came true or in which you had confidence but were proven wrong?

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