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This article on "The promise — and profits? — in digital photography" was written by Douglas Dixon and published in
U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 18, 1999. All rights reserved to the author.
Manifest Technology: Digital Photography
by Douglas Dixon
One of the companies most threatened by the growth
of digital technology into consumer products is Kodak, with its roots
in film cameras and processing. What could be more old-fashioned than
strips of film rolled into plastic cases, and developed with icky
chemicals? What could be more inconvenient on a summer vacation than
keeping track of rolls of film, taking special care of them to make
sure they don’t melt in the sun, and worrying about them at the airport
x-ray machine? And who hasn’t been ripped off by high film prices
when you needed to buy one more roll at a tourist trap?
And then what do you do with all that film? Drive to the mall to
a one-hour photo shop, and then wait around until it is done? Or drop
it off at a local drugstore and then wait until later in the week
to go back before you can see your photos? And what if you want to
share copies with your family and friends? You have to repeat the
process again, and pay even higher prices for reprints and enlargements.
What a pain!
Digital photography sounds like the solution to all these woes. With
a digital camera there’s no fuss and no muss: no film, no developing,
just images captured in digital memory in the camera. No more wasted
photos: you can be sure to get the right picture by reviewing your
shots on the spot using the camera’s built-in LCD screen. And there’s
no wait either: you can transfer the images directly into your computer.
Now you have complete control of your photos; you can organize them
in an on-line album, edit and manipulate them, print them out, e-mail
them to friends, and even post them on your web site for the whole
world to see.
In practice, digital photography has its own trade-offs. High-resolution
digital photos make big files. You can quickly run out of space in
your camera’s memory, which means you have to stop and transfer them
to your computer, or carry extra memory cards. Once you transfer them
to your computer, you can quickly find yourself filling up your computer’s
hard disk with your photo collection, and how are you going to back
up all those files? Suddenly, film doesn’t look so bad, especially
on trips; at least you can buy more film almost anywhere in the world,
and you can save prints and negatives for generations, even in a shoebox
in the closet.
Film cameras are also less expensive. You can get a single-use disposable
camera almost anywhere these days for around $5, or a point-and-shoot
camera with auto-focus, auto-exposure, and flash, for under $40. Digital
cameras have more components, including a LCD screen to view the images,
memory to store the images, a processor to control the camera, and
connectors to communicate with a PC. Pricing for digital cameras has
dropped below $300, but you’d probably want a $400 or $500 model for
more memory and higher image resolution.
Even so, digital cameras are well worth the money if you want your
images right away, or need them in digital form on your computer to
edit into a presentation or e-mail to a colleague. But there’s one
more problem with digital cameras: people really like glossy photos,
they’re handy to pass around, and look good in a photo album or framed
on the wall. A print-out of a digital print, even on glossy computer
paper, is just not the same.
A brand-new Princeton venture, PhotosByNet, is focused
on serving digital camera users over the Internet. PhotosByNet addresses
these issues by providing Internet printing and archiving services
for digital camera users. PhotosByNet was founded by entrepreneur
Glenn Paul, a graduate of Princeton University, Class of 1979, and
founder of Clancy Paul Computer Centers in the Princeton Shopping
Centers. He later started QwikQuote, a developer of business software,
which later changed to Electronic Business Universe (EBU).
Paul’s new venture, PhotosByNet, provides a web site that lets digital
camera owners "develop" photos online (http://www.photosbynet.com).
At PhotosByNet, anyone
with a digital camera can upload their photos to the web and organize
them in an album of thumbnail images. Customers can choose their favorites
and send them off to be printed by MotoPhoto, a collaborator in the
project. The pictures arrive in the mail a few days later.
Paul sees PhotosByNet as an example of a "simple idea which works
on the Internet." His likens it to Amazon.com, "great price
and good service." He has been working on the concept for "a
couple months," and just opened it up for users in the middle
of July by announcing it on a few photo web sites. The key is to provide
these services "for less than the cost of drug-store processing,"
including the shipping cost. PhotosByNet’s current prices compare
well to mail-order or local drugstore processing. A 4 by 6-inch reprint,
for example, costs just 21 cents through PhotosByNet, compared to
43 cents at a neighborhood drug store (plus postage, of course for
the Internet customers). Customers can also store their photos with
PhotosByNet for a fee of $1 a month, or for free if they do a minimum
business of $5 a month.
PhotosByNet solves the two big problems with collections
of digital photos: how to store them, and how to get great prints.
Digital photos are getting too big to organize conveniently, and printing
photos yourself is a pain. It also takes advantage of the immediacy
and flexibility of digital photos by providing a convenient way to
share your photos with others over the Web.
While you can print out copies of your photos at home, it’s expensive
and somewhat of a hassle. You can print photos on regular inkjet or
laser printer paper, but they look like printouts, and not photos,
and they’re not as durable as real prints. You can use a "bright
white" paper for a slightly better look, or step up to a "premium
glossy" paper for the photo look. But the cost of the paper jumps
from a penny per sheet to 50 cents or more, so you’d better be careful
to use it and store it properly, and you’re still stuck trimming the
results with a pair of scissors. "By the second time you try it,"
says Paul, "you don’t feel like printing more photos and cutting
them up. And it’s expensive."
PhotosByNet wants to be the place where you store and organize and
share your photos. You can upload your digital images, and then organize
them in an album with your notes. You can share your albums with others
in "browser" mode; they can view your photos over the Web,
but not edit the album. Only you can access your photos in "author"
mode, and add text annotations to the pictures.
However, there’s still the problem of uploading your
images over the Web. Older consumer digital cameras (from way long
ago last year) typically saved photos at 640 x 480 resolution, or
about 1/4 million picture elements per image (mega-pixels). Today’s
consumer digital cameras are increasing resolution quickly, from 1024
x 768 (3/4 megapixels), to 1280 x 960 (over 1 megapixel), to 1600
x 1200 (over 2 megapixels), and beyond. Lower resolutions are fine
for photos on Web pages, but you need the higher resolutions to make
sharp images when you make prints. However, these numbers are getting
seriously big, and storing lots of them in a limited camera memory,
or squeezing them down to transfer over the Internet, requires serious
image compression. But too much compression can cause visible defects
in your pictures.
As a result, digital cameras typically offer a range of resolutions
and compression levels. Typically, you can store around 24 to 40 images
at 640 resolution on a 1.4 MB floppy disk with aggressive compression,
or up to 60 images at low resolution on a 4 MB memory card, or as
few as 20 or even 10 images at high resolution and with less compression
on a 8 MB memory card. As the size of just one high-resolution image
with low compression gets larger than a megabyte, you’re starting
to take a significant chunk of your hard disk to store and edit them.
And it can take over five minutes to transfer a single one-megabyte
image over a good 50K modem connection.
PhotosByNet works around the image size problem by converting the
images to a small thumbnail to view in the album, and a medium-resolution
"internet image" size for viewing in more detail over the
Web. The original full-size image also is saved, to be used when you
order prints. Uploading a 2 to 6 MB file is still painful, but you
only have to upload the photos you want to share and print. "The
speed of upload will change," says Paul. "Every company is
working on it, from cable modems to the regional Bell companies to
AT&T and Microsoft."
Paul argues that the future of photography is digital,
and that the Internet will put an end to film. "When our children
grow up, that stand of yellow boxes won’t be there. Some of the photo
companies are still fighting the last battle, but we said chuck all
that and go straight to digital", he says. "We think it’s
a billion-dollar idea."
But Kodak has a "huge franchise to protect," Paul says, and
would like to "preserve the roll of film" as a major part
of the 20 billion photos taken each year in the United States. They
also need to worry about maintaining their relationships with their
retail dealers, including companies like Eckard Drug, Kmart, Target,
and Best Buy.
So the film developers are trying to provide the best of both worlds
by developing your film, and then also delivering it as digital photos.
When you drop off your film to be developed, you can check off a box
and get your photos on floppy disk for about $5, or on CD-ROM for
$5 to $10, or posted on the Internet for around $5. What more can
you want? You’ve got your prints to share and frame, you’ve got an
archival digital copy on CD to play with on your computer, and you’ve
got copies posted on the Web so you can share them with your distant
For example, Seattle FilmWorks (http://www.filmworks.com) posts
your photos on the Internet for free if you order digital copies on
CD, and keeps them on-line for 45 days. Kodak consolidated their Picture
Network on-line service with PictureVision’s PhotoNet service in early
1998, and has filled its "Picture Playground" Web site with
creative activities, including a cartoon maker and multimedia postcards.
Kodak has also created the "PhotoQuilt 2000" project, a mosaic
of photos on the Web contributed by people from around the world (http://www.kodak.com).
In June of this year Kodak announced a joint effort with Intel to
enhance its Picture CD product. You not only get your photos on CD,
but the CDs come in quarterly "issues" with a "magazine-style"
interface and additional software applications for editing and E-mailing
your pictures. People who don’t even own a PC can also use the CDs
at the Kodak Picture Maker kiosks.
All of these on-line services also offer a variety of other ways for
you to have fun with your photos (and for them to make more money),
from photo T-shirts to mugs and mousepads, calendars and posters,
and greeting cards. But Paul sees the key use of digital photos as
"the future of personal web sites: pictures of yourself and your
friends." A sculptor friend of Paul is already using PhotosByNet
to post images of his work; not necessarily to sell them, but just
to share them with others. Posting rolls of film is fun; you can share
the vacation snapshots or graduation photos with friends soon after
the event. But for lasting memories, you need to organize and annotate
your photos like in a album.
Paul sees PhotosByNet as an idea whose time has come. It leverages
the immediacy and control of digital photos, with the quality prints
that you are used to having from film. Plus, you choose the prints
and sizes, and get only the pictures you want, when you want them,
"exactly what you want, and without leaving the house." Digital
photography is also better for business: "you have no time to
print and cut photos, you can have them sent to you the next day,"
The PhotosByNet Web site is up and running, with the infrastructure
in place to archive collections of photos and order prints. "It’s
not easy to do," says Paul. "Other people’s sites are still
marked as under construction." While doing business on the Internet
is not new to him, PhotosByNet has been a different experience. "Clancy-Paul
does a lot of work on the Internet, with orders from all over the
world. But PhotosByNet is totally based on the Internet: You have
to have all the right tools. And your market is all over the country,
even the world."
Now that PhotosByNet has the proof of concept up and running, Paul’s
next step is "to go flat out: begin on-line advertising and other
promotions, and develop strategic agreements." The initial development
of PhotosByNet was self-funded, and Paul will begin to explore options
for going to the next level, to build a brand name. "We would
love to be the image resource on the Web," he says.
fax: 1-609-818-1076 Glenn Paul, president, president. Home page: http://www.photosbynet.com
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1 Newspaper, 12 Roszel Road, Princeton 08540, fax 609-452-0033, or
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