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December 20, 2011

Cameraphones past and present

There are more than a billion of them and they outnumber the sale of traditional cameras by 4 to 1. The total number of cameraphones sold has already passed more than the total number of cameras sold in the history of photography.

The first ever picture sent by a mobile phone, by Philipe Kahn in 1997

In the space of little over a decade, cameraphones have had a huge impact on the world. We decided to chart their history, and the people who made the great leap forward in technology possible.

The birth of the cameraphone

Phillipe Kahn is a close as it gets to being described as the father of the cameraphone. While his wife was in the early stages of labour, she asked him to give her some space and leave the room. Kahn decided to spend that time by starting work on the technology behind what’s heralded as the world’s first picture message.

Philippe Kahn, ‘the Father of the Cameraphone’

After working away with a soldering iron and some components from a nearby shop he came up with a way to connect his digital camera to his mobile phone. Seconds later, he shared the special moment of his daughter Sophie’s birth by sending a photo to family and friends across the world.

Japan – Cameraphone crazy

Kahn then brought his invention over to Japan and partnered with J-Phone, one of the biggest mobile networks of the time. Within two years over half of the network’s customers were hooked on sha-mail, a home grown early version of picture messaging on their mobile phones.

Picture by Justin Doub on Flickr

Countless novel uses of the technology have been dreamed up in Japan, where some even use picture messaging as a clever way to count calories by sharing the images with personal trainers.

Nokia 7560

By 2005 Nokia became the world’s largest camera producer. Nokia’s first cameraphone was the 7560, chunky by today’s standards but very much ahead of its time with a VGA resolution camera, capable of creating 640×480 pixel sized images.

Picture by Yao Wenguo on Flickr

  It only took another 5 years for sales of cameraphones to pass the 1 billion mark worldwide.

Unexpected outcomes

Many used their cameraphones to document everyday moments – from the birth of a new member of the family (just like Philippe Kahn back in 1997), to ‘wish you were here’ moments when abroad on holiday.

But some early adopters saw the opportunity of using the new technology to outsmart the news industry. In 2009 Janis Krums was aboard an everyday ferry across New York’s Hudson bay. To the shock of everyone onboard, a U.S Airways plane crash landed in the bay, only moments after take-off.


Plane in the Hudson Bay by Janis Krums on Twitpic

As Janis’ ferry changed course to rescue the plane’s passengers, he quickly took out his smartphone, took a snap of the crash scene and uploaded it to Twitter. According to the World Editors Forum’s blog, Janis’ first to the scene upload sent shocks throughout the mainstream media:

“Krums’ photo appeared on TwitPic just 10 minutes after take off, at 3.36PM.  Traditional media outlet the New York Times was ‘a bit slow to get news’ of the incident onto its web site, running it as a breaking news item at 3.48PM but not covering it as a front page story until 4.00PM.  Krums himself was interviewed by MSBNC 30 minutes after posting the image, but it was definitely Twitter that broke the story first.”

Since then, countless news stories have been broken first by images from cameraphones. More and more people across the developing world now have access to a cameraphone in their pocket.

With these phones being able to share images across the globe instantly, it seems Kahn’s hastily thought up invention back in 1997 still has plenty more potential to make an impact to our everyday lives.