As digital cameras struggle, global smartphones reach peak sales point

Source: Statista

The photo enthusiast sites frequently bemoaning the continued decline in camera shipments from Japan. Citing CIPA stats, it’s clear the trend isn’t optimistic, as shown from the chart at right. The growth in mirrorless category hasn’t done much to offset the secular decline in the digital camera industry. We can all debate the merits of which is better – the smartphone or the digital camera – but the consumer has chosen with their wallet. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras continue to innovate, however, and action cameras, 360/VR cameras, instant cameras and other image-capture devices, however, point to a pretty healthy imaging ecosystem (as we have mentioned in the past).

Things are not necessarily rosy on the smartphone front, either. Despite the addition of two, three and even five-lens smartphones, the category is still saturated. Today’s smartphones are too good and consumers are hanging on them longer. On the eve of the Global World Congress (GWC) earlier this year, recent stats from market research IDC  affirmed the global smartphone market may be saturated. According to Felix Richter, writing at Statista, “global smartphone shipments amounted to 375 million units in the fourth quarter of 2018, marking the fifth straight quarter of negative growth for the smartphone market. For the entirety of 2018, smartphone shipments declined by 4.1 percent to 1.4 billion units, making it the worst year ever in terms of shipment growth.

“With smartphone penetration reaching saturation levels in many regions and real innovations becoming rarer and less obvious to the average user, it was only a matter of time before the market reached this point, the question is whether things will only go downhill from here. Or in other words: have we passed the peak of the smartphone era yet?”

“Globally the smartphone market is a mess right now,” says Ryan Reith, vice president at IDC. He cites longer replacement cycles, high penetration levels and consumer frustration with rising prices as some of the factors contributing to the market’s current weakness.

What smartphone buyers really want

Camera - stock photo, coffee, smartphoneOddly enough, with all the emphasis on cameras, facial logins, VR, and other innovations, the wish list of the smartphone buyer is considerably more mundane. According to a survey by Morning Consult has revealed practicality is at the top of smartphone users’ suggested improvements. According to the survey, longer battery life is the most important feature for American smartphone owners, ahead of usability, storage, and durability.

Interestingly, many of the recent innovations in smartphone technology, e.g. AR/VR and facial recognition, are among the features Americans don’t really care about. This, along with ever-rising prices, could explain the recent slowdown in worldwide smartphone sales, at least to a certain extent. As the rollout debacle of the Samsung Galaxy Fold showed, it’s possible to rush features out before they are fully cooked.

As we’ve seen, however, smartphone manufacturers continue to respond with more features and higher price points. The $999 iPhone X in the fall of 2017 shook industry watchers’ expectations. Nearly two years later, most other followed Apple’s lead, making price tags in excess of $1,000 the new norm for top-of-the-line devices.

How can digital camera makers respond?

Tech writers are obsessed with death. New products have to not only produce technological innovation but to such a degree it means “disruption” or “death” to the standard bearers. Google “iphone killer” and more than 700,000 results are returned.

These days, the death knell is ringing for compact cameras. The smartphone category is the culprit this time, relegating point-and-shoots the dungheap of digital history. None other than technology visionary Jean-Louis Gassée wrote in the Guardian years ago:  “Compact cameras die in a flash thanks to smartphones.” (Again, Google “smartphone compact cameras,” and 4.4 million links are returned; among the top results: “Smartphone replacing compact cameras?” “Smartphone crushing point-and-shoot camera market.”)

Hyperbole helps page views, even if they don’t reflect reality. Just as compact film cameras eventually gave way to digital compacts, smartphones will replace some compacts for many mundane uses i.e. happy snaps, fish-face self-portraits, etc. I predict compacts will continue on, leveraging some of the features they can excel at: Weather- or water-proofing, low-light capability, and long zoom.

There’s also an enormous rental opportunity for higher-end camera equipment, as well as classic digital cameras, for photo specialty and online dealers.

This is not to say the digital camera category couldn’t use some improvements, especially in the area of software. The two leaders, Canon and Nikon, are renowned for their closed ecosystems. Both companies have proprietary thinking embedded in their corporate DNA and it will be tough to shake that loose. They don’t even like the idea of sharing their lens mount. Considering cameras today are powerful handheld computers with lenses, it seems almost a 70s-era idea that you can’t install applications or tweak the UI. Given the fact Sony plays in both fields – smartphones and imaging – it would be interesting to see if the company could develop a phone encompassing the best of both worlds.

It remains to be seen whether Canon’s efforts to woo developers will bear fruit.

[bctt tweet=”If the future of photography is artificial intelligence, the digital camera is still in elementary school.” username=”DeadPixelsSocty”]

Back to the question of how can digital cameras be meaningfully improved? Not just higher resolution or insanely expensive prime lenses, but to meaningfully address concerns of smartphone shooters who are looking to trade up.

  1. Digital cameras have tremendous battery life. Camera manufacturers need to use this to their advantage. Not only do DSLRs/mirrorless camera have replaceable batteries, but they also have accessory battery grips, etc.
  2. Digital cameras can be made more durable than smartphones. This is the appeal of action cameras like GoPro and now DJI. Olympus, Pentax, and Fujifilm are serving this market with basic compacts and there are few higher-end cameras with weatherproofing. But wouldn’t it be great if there were a new generation of Nikonos to talk about?
  3. Digital cameras need 21st-century connectivity. It’s kind of mind-boggling there is not a SIM-card slot available for a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Think about it. With 5G on the horizon, what better workflow can there be for a photographer than to have his or her images immediately available on the cloud. This will be essentially offering the opportunity for universal storage and for instant sharing.
  4. Digital cameras need apps. Digital cameras are computers and need to be developed like one. Years ago, I had a discussion with a leading executive at a major camera company about the idea of an app-driven camera operating system – like DigitaOS – and the response was harsh: “We will never allow software we don’t support to be installed on our devices.” This is not to say digital cameras need hundreds of filter or sticker apps, but there would definitely be demand for apps from major services like Google Photos, Facebook, Instagram, and more. Why not build Perfectly Clear for EyeQ into digital cameras, as is now happening with smartphones. Take it a step further: Why not print directly from DSLRs/mirrorless cameras without having to tether to a smartphone? Reducing friction points is something consumers really want.
  5. Digital cameras need to be smarter. Camera manufacturers still cling to the analog workflow of “capture – process – share.” The camera has a lens, a processor and some storage. The images are later offloaded onto another device for processing and for editing. Take it a step further: If the future of photography is artificial intelligence, the digital camera is still in elementary school. With powerful onboard processing and a live cellular internet connection, the digital camera could add meaningful location data to add in sorting images and in telling meaningful stories. This is already being done on smartphones. And since DSLRs and mirrorless are excellent video-capture devices, why not add on-board basic video editing? Smartphones have offered video editing since the mid-2000s on devices with small screens, little memory, and anemic processors.
  6. Digital camera UIs are almost universally terrible. Let’s admit this and get professional help.

Any thoughts or suggestions? Add them in the comments below.