Camera phone grows popular as business tool

Imaging: As chip makers improve the quality of camera phone pictures, the number of uses for the digital devices is expected to multiply.

September 16, 2004|By Therese Poletti | Therese Poletti,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Real estate agent Eve Barron uses a camera phone to instantly e-mail clients photos of hot properties that have just come on the market.

Her phone also comes in handy during home inspections when she spots potential problems.

"I photograph all the points, so when I go back and write up my inspection, I have it in my phone. ... It gives you that one extra thing that ... perhaps other agents don't have," Barron said.

Camera phones are not just for teenagers and tourists any more. What started in Japan as a fad has now become a must-have feature for many buyers of new cell phones, including business people. And the chip makers that develop the image sensors used in the devices hope to grab a piece of the ever-growing camera phone pie.

"When these phones were first introduced, I thought it was a dumb idea," said Shyam Nagrani, a principal consumer electronics analyst with market research firm iSuppli. "But now you are seeing some really interesting uses. ... There are a lot of professional uses."

Last year, for instance, the BBC gave its London reporters video camera phones so they could record brief video news clips if they didn't have a camera crew with them.

"Their view is that a poor video is better than none at all when you can beat your competition," said Alan Reiter, president of Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing, a consulting firm in Chevy Chase.

Byron Riffenberg, a mechanical engineer with Air Systems in San Jose, Calif., said he uses his Palm Zire 71 hand-held device to take photos of clients' sites. Air Systems installs heating and air conditioning systems at Silicon Valley companies, and Riffenberg brings the photos back to his office to jog his memory when he is describing a job to colleagues.

"It probably saves me a couple of hours a week," said Riffenberg. "If I forget to look at something and I have a picture of it, I can look at the pictures and I don't have to go back to the site."

This year, worldwide sales of camera phones based on the lower-cost sensor chips, called CCD sensors, are outpacing digital cameras with the same chips, with 100 million of the phones expected to be sold versus 20 million digital cameras.

It's no surprise that sales of the image-sensor chips that turn a cell phone into a camera phone are soaring as well. Chip sales will grow at an average rate of 23.7 percent over the next four years, iSuppli's Nagrani estimated. He said camera phone chips could be the fastest-growing segment of the semiconductor industry in the next few years.

Still, camera phones' usefulness as a business tool remains limited by the low quality of the photos they take. Riffenberg and other camera phone aficionados said the photos don't make the grade for client proposals or other important documents.

Riffenberg noted that other technicians at his company use digital cameras for photos that need to have higher resolution. Insurance adjusters, too, prefer to use digital cameras and download photos into a notebook computer.

But as chip makers keep improving image sensor chips, the quality of camera phone photos will begin to approach those taken by megapixel digital cameras.

In the United States, camera phones that take photos with 1.3 megapixel resolution are just starting to come on the market. In Japan and South Korea, however, 3-megapixel phones that take photos closer in quality to those of digital cameras are sold.

As the market heats up, some chip makers are looking to buy their way into the business.

In June, Cypress Semiconductor of San Jose spent $100 million to buy FillFactory, a Belgian company that develops high-performance sensor chips. Micron of Boise, Idaho, acquired Photobit for $50 million in 2002.

"In the next few years, it will be increasingly difficult to find a phone without a camera," said Reiter, the wireless analyst. "And once we start getting the 2- and 3-megapixel camera phones, that's going to start eating into the high end of the digital camera market."

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