TechCrunch recently noted that the iPhone 4 is about to become the most frequently used camera on Flickr. Ahead of anything from Canon, Nikon and all other "real" camera makers. This is simultaneously depressing and inspiring...but how is anything like Napster, you ask?
Image credit: Techcrunch
Napster kills Hi-Fi
In 1999, Napster sparked a revolution in music and a corresponding massive decline in the state of the art for audio technology. Napster didn't create the MP3 but they did perfect its digital distribution. In doing so, Napster accelerated the mass decline of the quality of music. In just a few years after its initial launch, Napster undid decades of progress in audio fidelity and reproduction. Before Napster and before the MP3, there were literally decades of innovation in audio quality. The years from the 1950s through the 1970s in particular were a golden age for audio and millions of research dollars were spent to create and market high fidelity (hi-fi) audio equipment. People didn't just care about what they were listening to. They were acutely aware of how it sounded.
How could decades of research and marketing get up-ended by a college kid with a single idea? Virality. Social trumped signal. People became far more interested in having music than hearing music. To that end, they rushed head long into reams of low bit-rate recordings that were originally captured on state of the art equipment that was meant to find every nuance of the source sound for faithful reproduction on a high end system. What did they get in their low bit-rate free versions of their music? Tinny, snappy, staticy sound. And they loved it!
Apple follows suit
Just like Napster before it, Apple launched a product that has killed years of research, development and marketing. They touched a nerve with consumers and changed the course of a mobile movement that started with very different ideals. For years, companies like Nokia placed their bets on "the smartphone as a multi-function device." The difference is that they really went way to the other end of the spectrum of complexity. Back in 2005, Nokia jammed a 2MP camera into the N70. That was a very impressive camera for the time and that was a full two years before Apple announced the iPhone (which launched with a 2MP camera).
By the time of the iPhone launch, Nokia was including 5MP f/2.8 Zeiss optics in their phones. So what happened? Users were interested in Apps not Optics. Not just any apps. Social apps. Once again, Social trumped Signal. Apple recognized that the gross simplification of a camera can work when put in the hands of your average consumer. Making things dead simple simply works. They pushed any complexity into the hands of app developers.
Today, people want to be able to take and share photos now, now, now. There's a greatly lesser desire of the masses to take tack sharp color-correct distortion free photos to save for posterity. What does posterity mean in the land of the stream, anyway?
It truly doesn't matter that the iPhone 4's optics are piss pore compared to even a cheap point and shoot camera. It's not about optics. It's about accessibility. As the folks that make Best Camera say...the best camera is the one you have with you. And with the rise of so many photo apps on the iPhone that really should be phrased, "the best cameras are the one you have with you." If only the grammar worked.
So what does all this say about our society? Whether audio or optics, we're desperately accelerating the decline of arts that have taken decades to perfect. At what point will the declining state of the art spark a new cry for quality? We've surpassed the tipping point. All we can do is wait for the state of the art to reset. To mature. To start packing all of those years of laboratory research in audio and visual quality into our ever smaller and more compact form factors - physical limitations, be damned. And those form factors better not only be the size of phones...they better be phones. Otherwise it's just a waiting game, like our friends at Flip recently learned when they were shut down.
As a technologist and camera geek I'm conflicted. I love me my iPhone but I rely on its camera too often. I have far too many great moments captured poorly. I do still continue to sling my Sony NEX-5 over my shoulder, but how long will it be before even that little mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is just too big and all my photos are from my phone? All I can hope is that the future arrives sooner than later. Until then I'll wait patiently, because the future that is being written today is a future where technology supports the way people want to live and interact with each other. Socially. Interactively. Always on, but with ease. It's a future that is being written by the People and not by companies. All I can hope is that it's also a future where devices not only are always there at the ready but, unlike today, are also actually capable of doing justice to the job we ask them to do.