A Camera in Every Cell Phone
A proud father invented the cell-phone camera to share images of his new baby with friends
After 18 hours of labor on June 11, 1997, Sonia, the wife of 45-year-old software engineer Philippe Kahn, finally kicked him out of her Santa Cruz, California, maternity ward room. So he adjourned to a nearby desk and started fiddling with his laptop, cell phone, and digital camera. He’d planned to take pictures of their newborn, transfer the pictures from the camera to his laptop, post the pictures to a Web site, and e-mail his friends—all of which was then relatively advanced, technologically speaking.
But Kahn was one of the world’s leading software entrepreneurs. Born in Paris, the ebullient, flute-playing, nearly broke businessman had emigrated to America in 1982 and founded Borland International in a room over a garage in Silicon Valley. Borland had produced the successful Turbo Pascal program, the first popular integrated development environment (IDE) software compiler to help programmers edit, compile, and debug their programs, and soon his company became a leading software supplier. But internal company problems cost him day-to-day control. Seven months before this moment, he had resigned from his creation’s board.
As he waited in the hospital, he started writing software code for transmitting photos from his cell phone. He slipped out to Radio Shack for some soldering wire to connect his camera to a cell phone. A few hours later, this remarkable improvisation was snapping a picture of his daughter, Sophie.
Kahn soon turned his picture-sending code into a system he named PictureMail, and he founded the LightSurf company to make this first mobile photo messaging solution in North America, still used by Verizon and Sprint.
Birth of the Cellcam
The software development moved more quickly than that of the hardware. First came cameras that clipped onto a cell phone equipped with photo software. Three years later the first integrated cell phone/camera, the Sharp J-SH04, hit the Japanese market in November 2000. Sprint introduced the Sanyo SCP-5300, the first cellcam available to American consumers, in December 2002.
These first cellcams took low-resolution video graphics array (VGA) pictures, using more efficient, lower-power complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) imaging chips instead of the charge-coupled device (CCD) chips found inside most digital cameras. The poor quality of the images and extremely slow transmission times over 14.4 kilobits per second (kbps) cell data networks didn’t dampen consumer enthusiasm for the convenience, and cell phone manufacturers were soon finding it difficult to sell a phone that didn’t include a camera.
While cellcam resolution improved steadily and video recording was added, the technology suffered from the slowness of digital cell networks. Cellcams equipped with 1, 2, 3.2, and now 5 megapixel imagers followed the introduction and spread of true 3G EDGE (Enhanced Data GSM Environment) and Ev-DO (Evolution Data Only) broadband networks, which from late 2004 were capable of providing data transmission speeds in excess of 384 kbps. In 2006 the faster GSM HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) networks arrived. Though still hampered by small plastic lenses, higher-resolution cellcam photos are beginning to approach the quality of those snapped by standalone cameras.
Looking back, it seems odd that someone else hadn’t thought of combining a cell phone with a digital camera. Today such devices are the world’s best-selling gadgets: in 2009 more than 80 million cell phones equipped with at best mediocre cameras were sold in the United States, compared with only 30 million digital cameras, which take excellent pictures. But cellcams increasingly made the news, as amateur videographers captured and transmitted the hanging of Saddam Hussein, the initial footage from the killings at Virginia Tech, and Michael Richards’s racist comedy club rant right from their cell phones.
The convenience of always having a camera in one’s pocket and being able to instantly transmit its pictures to anyone has made the cellcam the most ubiquitous device in history.
In late 2008 Motorola and Kodak combined to create the MOTOZINE ZN5, a truly merged cell phone/digital camera sold by T-Mobile. While it took arguably the best pictures of any cellcam before or since, the ZN5 didn’t sell as well as experts believed it would. But as cell networks continue to speed up, especially with the expected introduction of speedy broadband 4G networks in 2010–11, cameras on cell phones will not only be snapping and sending higher-resolution photos but also high-definition video recordings. As the still and video capabilities of cell phone cameras improve, digital camera makers will be forced to add cell connectivity to compete, further blurring the line between the two products.
The first all-in-one cellcam available in the United States, the dual-band, tri-mode Sanyo SCP-5300, sold for $400 in 2002. It contained a built-in camera and LED flash mounted at the rear, a 2.1-inch main display, and an external one-inch LCD screen. Being the first, the SCP-5300 offered a surprisingly wide variety of camera options—16x digital zoom, sepia tone (which Sprint called “antique”), black-and-white or negative options, and auto and nine-step manual white balance and brightness controls.
Steve Sasson (1950—)
No cell phones with cameras would exist today without the innovations in digital camera technology made by the Brooklyn native Steve Sasson. As a recently hired electrical engineer in 1973, he was assigned to build a camera using a new type of electronic solid-state sensor known as a charge-coupled device (CCD), which could capture optical information and turn it into digital data. Sasson built the digital circuitry from scratch and cobbled together the rest of the camera with an analog-to-digital converter from Motorola, a movie camera photographic lens made by Kodak, and tiny CCD chips introduced in 1973 by Fairchild Semiconductor. The resulting prototype, a toaster-sized contraption weighing eight pounds, boasted a resolution of 0.01 megapixels and recorded black-and-white digital images onto a cassette tape. Sasson snapped the first digital image in December 1975. It took 23 seconds to capture an image and store it, but Sasson’s creation forever changed the way the world takes photos.
2001 cellcam U.S. unit sales: 0
2010 cellcam U.S. unit sales: 80 million