Friday, May 18, 2007

1997: first camera phone

Ten years ago, Philippe Kahn was in a hospital.

"We were going to have a baby and I wanted to share the pictures," Kahn said, "and there was no easy way to do it."

So as he sat in a maternity ward, he wrote a crude program on his laptop and sent an assistant to a RadioShack store to get a soldering iron and parts to connect his digital camera to his cellphone. When Sophie was born, he sent her photo over a cellular connection to acquaintances around the globe.

"It's had a massive impact because it's just so convenient," said Kahn, a tech industry maverick who founded software maker Borland, an early Microsoft rival.

"There's always a way to capture memories and share it," he said. "You go to a restaurant, and there's a birthday and suddenly everyone is getting their camera phones out. It's amazing."

A decade later, 41 percent of American households own a camera phone. Market researcher Gartner Inc. predicts that about 589 million cell phones will be sold with cameras in 2007, increasing to more than 1 billion worldwide by 2010.

The contraption Kahn assembled in 1997 has evolved into a pocket-friendly phenomenon that has empowered both citizen journalists and personal paparazzi.

It has prompted lawsuits - a student sued campus police at UCLA for alleged excessive force after officers were caught on cellphone video using a stun gun during his arrest; and been a catalyst for change - a government inquiry into police practices ensued in Malaysia after a cellphone video revealed a woman detainee being forced to do squats while naked.

On another scale, parents use cellphone slideshows - not wallet photos - to show off pictures of their children, while adolescents document their rites of passage with cell phone cameras and instantly share the images.

Kahn's makeshift photo-communications system formed the basis for a new company, LightSurf Technologies, which he later sold to VeriSign. LightSurf built "PictureMail" software and worked with cellphone makers to integrate the wireless photo technology.

Sharp was the first company to sell a commercial cellphone with a camera in Japan in 2000. Camera phones didn't debut in the US until 2002, Kahn said.

Though Kahn's work revolved around transmitting only still photographs, his groundbreaking implementation of the instant-sharing via a cellphone planted a seed.
Kahn is well aware of how the camera phone has since been put to negative uses: sneaky shots up women's skirts, or the violent trend of "happy slapping" in Europe where youths provoke a fight or assault, capture the incident on camera and then spread the images on the Web or between mobile phones.

But he likes to focus on the technology's benefits. It's been a handy tool that has led to vindication for victims or validation for vigilantes.

As Kahn heard the smattering of stories in recent years about assailants scared off by a camera phone or criminals who were nabbed later because their faces or their license plates were captured on the gadget, he said, "I started feeling it was better than carrying a gun."

And though he found the camera-phone video of the former Iraqi dictator's execution disturbing, Kahn said the gadget helped "get the truth out." The unofficial footage surreptitiously taken by a guard was vastly different from the government-issued version and revealed a chaotic scene with angry exchanges depicting the ongoing problems between the nation's factions. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

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