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Picture gets clearer for cellphone camera users

The industry improves photos' quality and makes it easier to move them to a PC or printer.

December 28, 2006|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

At a recent meeting, Claudia Brent and some acquaintances wanted to see pictures that one of them had snapped of his paintings on exhibit.

So the artist passed his cellphone around the room.

"Five or 10 of us began clicking through the photos on his cellphone," said Brent, a Rochester, N.Y., law office manager.

Camera-equipped cellphones are catching on as an alternative to the standard camera, turning users into citizen journalists or instant historians. Just ask actor Michael Richards, whose highly publicized racial rant during a stand-up comedy routine was caught on a cellphone video camera.

Yet more than half the customers with such cellphones either don't use the camera or don't do much with the photos they take.

Brent, a technophobe, managed to save a picture of her first grandchild as wallpaper on her cellphone. But for her, the camera was simply something that came with the handset.

Likewise, Rosemary Brinker, a senior clerk at Long Beach City College's career center, said the camera was "just there."

"Other people have taken pictures with my cellphone, and the pictures are still in there," said Brinker, who noted that she merely needed a mobile phone.

About 40% of cellphone customers have cameras in their handsets, according to a survey by Forrester Research Inc. But 30% of them never use the camera and 46% say the photos they take have never left their phones.

The chief reasons: The quality of photos taken with a phone isn't close to what a conventional digital camera can do, and the process for moving those pictures to a computer or a printer over the cellphone carrier's network can be cumbersome and costly, say analysts, carriers and manufacturers.

In the last year, though, the industry has stepped up efforts to provide better picture-taking technology and to make it easier to get the photos out of the cellphone and onto computers and websites.

Higher-end cellphones and so-called smart phones entered the market this year with 2- and 3-megapixel sensors and zoom lenses, comparable to digital cameras from a few years ago. And next year, handset maker Nokia Corp. plans to come out with a 5-megapixel, zoom-lens camera cellphone.

"We're just now starting to see image capabilities that capture truly great pictures," said Jon Mulder, product marketing manager for handset maker Sony Ericsson. "With a 3.2-megapixel camera phone, you can get an 8-by-10 printout with a fantastic image."

And people who don't want to use their airtime and don't want to buy data packages may be able to get those pictures to their personal computers or printers in other ways.

More phones are coming with USB cords and removable disks that enable users to bypass their service providers' networks and transfer photos directly to PCs, printers, hand-held organizers and other devices.

Some higher-priced phones also have a technology called Bluetooth that enables data to be moved wirelessly to nearby printers and computers that have the same technology.

A direct transfer is called side-loading, and carriers including Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA are encouraging the practice. Verizon Wireless typically blocks customers' ability to side-load data unless they pay for it, forcing users to use the network -- and their airtime -- to transfer pictures.

"A curious thing is that even with the unlimited [data] plans Verizon sells, you're still charged airtime for minutes of connectivity," Forrester wireless analyst Charles Golvin said. "I'm not sure how many Verizon customers know that."

Those with newer camera cellphones often are more active photo hounds.

"I take pictures every day," said Nellie McKinley, one of Brinker's co-workers at Long Beach City College. "I have four kids and two granddaughters, and I'm always sending pictures to my kids' phones or their e-mails."

For McKinley, having a camera on the phone she bought last year was essential, and she's planning to upgrade to a newer phone.

Another co-worker, Sida Chau, takes pictures every day with her BlackBerry smart phone, often looking for things that seem surreal to her, from accidents to ordinary events. "I'm really into technology," she said.

Camera cellphones seem to be particularly popular at concerts and sporting events, where "it's insane to watch how many people are sticking their arms out taking pictures," Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak said.

Those who use cellphones for taking pictures are often a different breed of photographer, industry executives say.

"We've gone from the camera as a novelty on the cellphone to a camera enabling social networking," said John Holstrom, director of mobile software applications for handset maker Motorola Inc.

"People are starting to capture daily occurrences -- a day in the life of -- and sending the photos in real time to family and friends or uploading them to blogs," Holstrom said.

For all the technological wizardry, barriers still exist, said John Clelland, senior vice president of marketing for T-Mobile.

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