Behold, the new 8-megapixel Samsung Memoir.

Let me tell you about how my day is going. I wrote an Automator workflow yesterday that would download the latest editions of 90 different comic strips every morning, slap them inside a PDF, and upload the file to both my home media server and my iDisk every morning at 7 AM. Every morning when I awake at the crack of noon (-ish), I can turn to the PowerBook on my nightstand and catch up on Mary Worth before I even get out of bed.

But it didn’t work. Apparently I’d passed a faulty parameter to the “New PDF From Images” action. It was easily fixed, no worries there, but I was expecting a breakfast in bed of hot, fresh comics, Instead, I wound up sitting in bed, debugging.

None of this has anything to do with photography in general or the Samsung Memoir in particular. But it put some air between the product photo and the following piece of information: that the Memoir is, in fact, a phone and not a camera.

Or is it? It looks like and handles like a camera. Not a phone. Its image sensor is a serious-as-a-heart-attack 8 megapixels and it features a real flash, not a white LED or an advisory to try to keep anybody from leaving the party until after sunrise the next morning, and then lure them outside and have them squint into the East and face the sun.

Are we talking about a phone with camera features, here? Or are we now in the realm of a camera with an incredibly robust wireless system for emailing and posting photos that (oh, right) can also place and receive phone calls?

See? Here’s my struggle with phones like this.

The first couple of years of a new product category are a particularly exciting time because neither the device’s designers nor its consumers have figured out yet what the damned thing should be. The Macintosh Portable is a legendary example. Mobile computing was in its infancy at the time and Apple’s best guess was “Take everything you’d expect from a desktop machine, and make it portable.” It made no compromises on keyboard and screen quality, and you could to put in a full day’s work on the thing whether you were plugged into AC or not.

There was a slight downside: it was “portable” only in so much as it had a handle. It weighed 16 pounds and it was about the size of an accordion.

Apple wasn’t stupid to build a machine like the Portable. It took many years (and far worse failures than Apple’s) to determine what the phrase “mobile computing” meant. Once everyone agreed what a “notebook” was, it was easy to figure out what corners could safely be cut in the pursuit of those goals.

But the rapid evolution of both imaging and phone technology make the cameraphone a constantly moving target, though. And a truly practical, high-quality model might be impossible to market; most consumers never proceed beyond the “snapshot” stage of photography, and they probably can’t be talked into spending as little as $20 extra for a phone with superior camera features. Even the folks who can truly appreciate a multiple-element glass variable-focus lens are less likely to buy a “real” camera phone. They’re more likely to have a conventional pocket camera at hand when they feel as though they’re about to snap.

So where does that leave us?

I want a phone with a great camera. I keep honking on and on about the power of the camera you have with you compared with to the impotence of the one you left at home. I’ve been very happy with many of the shots I’ve taken with my iPhone.

It’s not great art. Even if it were, at 1600×1200 resolution it probably wouldn’t make for a very satisfying gallery print unless I added a lot of BS about “recontextualizing the fundamental atom of human observation through he prism of a Neo-Plastic, proto-Cubist representationative idiom, which to the unsophisticated eye would appear similar to the blocky pixels of a crummy low-resolution JPEG.”

It’s not great, but it’s “good enough,” which is what people seem to want in a phone. As the one device you always have in your pocket no matter what, it doesn’t have to be superlative in any one category. It has to be a good enough camera, a good enough GPS, a good enough mobile computer…actually, the phone app is probably my iPhone’s least-used feature, but it needs to be good enough at that, too.

Plus, a phone is a unique beastie. I’d love a variable-focus lens in my iPhone, but I also love the fact that the fixed-focus, zero-moving-parts camera still works perfectly, even though I’ve dropped my iPhone several times.

The future of phone photography probably isn’t in creating better and better lenses and imaging systems, or in companies creating these “superstar” cameraphones. I think it’ll come down to a small company creating the greatest imaging chip and processing firmware ever. The company’s technology will take those cheap 2 or 3 megapixel images and make them look fantastic. It’ll “fake” high resolution and sharp focus. It’ll take fast bursts of photos, experimenting with different exposure settings, and automatically select the best one for the preview-and-save operation.

Those shots won’t be any great shakes by traditional camera standards. But like the cheaper screens and keyboards and batteries in notebook computers, the world would appreciate that these photos are a world sight better than what used to be in cameraphones, and they were perfectly Good Enough. Best of all, it could be licensed to any company who walks into the office with their checkbook open, and represent the rising tide that raises every ship in the harbor.

I look forward to getting a sample of the Samsung Memoir when it’s released in a couple of weeks. It’s a T-Mobile exclusive, available for $249 with a two-year contract. It’s good to see these companies continue to be aggressive in making better cameras.

And it points the way to a new product category.

Like I said, I wouldn’t buy a phone based on its camera features. But I very well might buy a camera based on its phone features.

The Ethernet port on the Nikon P6000 is damned-near useless. Even WiFi in a camera can barely do anything. What if Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, et al made a line of cameras that had SIM slots?

Wouldn’t that be fairly awesome? If I’ve just shot something with (let’s make up a camera, here) my Nikon P6060s that I wanted to put up on Flickr right away, I could just eject the SIM from my phone, slide it into the camera, and use the 3G connection to email it or post it to the site.

Yes, I know: if I had almost any other smartphone, it’d have a Mini or MicroSD memory card slot and I could just move a memory card from the camera into the phone. But it doesn’t always work, y’see, and a SIM slot in the camera would open the door to even awesomer-er features. Like automatically posting a Web-scale version of every photo, seconds after it’s shot.

The camera would also have a phone app. As a phone, the hypothetical 6060s would about as good as the iPhone is as a camera. But it’d get the job done, and in a big “event” day when I know I’d be eager to post lots of shots as they happen, I might even just leave the iPhone at home.

I might even pay a small fee to have a second SIM just for the camera. As long as this scheme was based on an industry standard and I’d be free to buy whatever SIMcamera I wanted…well, a camera that’s also a phone would suddenly make a whole lot of sense to me.

Once again, it all hinges on the technology makers and the technology consumers figuring out what a device ought to be. Things might be looking good for the SIMcamera. Cameras are making a slow, grinding roll away from the rather unimaginative description “it’s a device that takes a photo” and easing their way towards “it’s a device that captures a pile of information, which you later process and post elsewhere,” a more generalized concept that creates a hell of a lot more potential.

If the camera becomes regarded as merely the conduit between photons streaming from the scene into the lens and photons streaming from a screen into the eyes of dozens to millions of viewers…we could really start to see something.


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