Smile, You're on Cellular Camera

One of the problems with using the wireless photo messaging services available in the U.S. at the moment is the clunky process of getting the image onto the phone. Carriers are offering snap-on camera modules and cable or Bluetooth connections [Ed note: not that there many Bluetooth-enabled devices available either] to allow users to get pictures onto their phones.

However, Lightsurf Technologies Inc. says all that will change soon, as three mobile phones with integrated digital cameras -- which are not the Nokia 7650 -- will arrive on the U.S. market before the end of the year or in the first quarter of the next.

The startup -- founded and funded by Philipe Khan, the former president of Starfish Software Inc. -- works with phone manufacturers to certify that their products work with its software.

The phones will likely be among the first imaging phones to hit U.S. shores. Lightsurf is, of course, keeping quiet about which vendors will be delivering imaging phones. But Robin Nijor, VP of marketing at Lightsurf, says he has been taken aback by the different types of vendors, quite apart from traditional handset vendors, that want to be involved in picture messaging.

"We've been surprised by some of the names ourselves," he says.

Worldwide shipments of imaging phones will reach 151 million in 2006, according to IDC. Photo messaging is one the services that carriers are banking on to drive up data usage over 2.5G and 3G networks.

Japan probably leads the world in photo messaging at the moment. Over six million people now use J Phone Co Ltd.'s Sha-mail picture email service (see 6M Use Sha-mail). There are a number of phones and services available.

Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) is still in its infancy in Europe, with major carriers just starting to offer services. The only phone available with a built-in camera is Nokia Corp.'s (NYSE: NOK) 7650, which comes in at over $500 without a contract.

In the U.S., AT&T Wireless Services Inc. (NYSE: AWE), Sprint PCS (NYSE: PCS), and Verizon Wireless have services in place. Sprint's PCS Vision picture messaging service is based on Lightsurf's software and enables users to send pictures to other phones over SMS or via email to desktop PCs.

Integrated imaging phones are clearly the next step in the evolution of the U.S. market. However, we at Unstrung think that, one way or another, they'll have to be priced more keenly than early European phones (such as Nokia's) if they are to take off.

And, as we have pointed out before, having the ability to take and send a photo anywhere, anytime, to anyone in your phone's address book... well, it does have its darker side (see The Nokia 7650 Imaging Phone).

Unfortunately, female commuters in Japan are already finding this out, according to Lightsurf's Nijor. He says the carriers have asked the vendors to make sure the next generation of image phones "beep or something" when a picture is taken, "because of the way these phones were being used on trains by Japanese schoolboys." "It was the angle of the photos they were taking, I think," Nijor explained coyly.

Probably just trying to get a shot of their Nokias, then.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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