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11/24/2004
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Technology's Worst Enemy

It's been almost two years since the first camera phones appeared, heralding the advent of multimedia messaging (MMS) and paving the way for the impending 3G data services. Surprise, surprise, initially they were a resounding flop, marred by issues such as service costs, network interoperability, lack of handset availability, lack of roaming agreements and overly complex user interfaces. Granted, it took just a press of a button to take a picture. But storing, e-mailing or downloading that shot

PENN_MALCOMIt's been almost two years since the first camera phones appeared, heralding the advent of multimedia messaging (MMS) and paving the way for the impending 3G data services. Surprise, surprise, initially they were a resounding flop, marred by issues such as service costs, network interoperability, lack of handset availability, lack of roaming agreements and overly complex user interfaces. Granted, it took just a press of a button to take a picture. But storing, e-mailing or downloading that shot to a PC tested the patience of the most dedicated user.

Most of the original problems have been addressed, and next year will see almost half of the handsets sold worldwide feature an in-built camera. Carriers now offer more MMS-oriented subscription packages, entry-level resolution is approaching the megapixel level — with a 5-Mpixel phone not far off — and costs have plummeted to near-SMS levels. There are even third-party service options available that make it possible to send pictures to a photo booth or print shop for collection one hour later.

So are we entering the golden age of camera phones? Sadly, the answer is still no. Again, poorly thought-out execution will trounce user expectations.

Sending pictures by phone to a print shop sounds like a big step, and the service is straightforward. Except the picture you end up with is not what you thought you took. In short, the photos that networks plan to deliver don't match the image resolution users think they are sending.

By default, most phones send 30-kbyte images, with the option to raise that to 100 kbytes by manual intervention. But you need 300 kbytes to get a decent-looking 6 x 4-inch picture. The result is a poor-quality print, user frustration and service dissatisfaction. Yet again, the network operators shoot themselves in the foot.

Ironically, it is in their own interests to deliver what the user wants, and it ought to be a hugely profitable business given the infrastructure has been built. Ask yourself: How can anyone make such commercially inept decisions without even bothering to ask the most fundamental question of all? Would my family, friends or colleagues be satisfied with the service offered?

Malcolm Penn is the CEO of Future Horizons (Sevenoaks, England; www.futurehorizons.com), an industry analysis firm.

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