Picture gets clearer for cellphone camera users

Times Staff Writer

At a recent meeting, Claudia Brent and some acquaintances wanted to see pictures that one of them had snapped of his paintings on exhibit.

So the artist passed his cellphone around the room.

"Five or 10 of us began clicking through the photos on his cellphone," said Brent, a Rochester, N.Y., law office manager.

Camera-equipped cellphones are catching on as an alternative to the standard camera, turning users into citizen journalists or instant historians. Just ask actor Michael Richards, whose highly publicized racial rant during a stand-up comedy routine was caught on a cellphone video camera.

Yet more than half the customers with such cellphones either don't use the camera or don't do much with the photos they take.

Brent, a technophobe, managed to save a picture of her first grandchild as wallpaper on her cellphone. But for her, the camera was simply something that came with the handset.

Likewise, Rosemary Brinker, a senior clerk at Long Beach City College's career center, said the camera was "just there."

"Other people have taken pictures with my cellphone, and the pictures are still in there," said Brinker, who noted that she merely needed a mobile phone.

About 40% of cellphone customers have cameras in their handsets, according to a survey by Forrester Research Inc. But 30% of them never use the camera and 46% say the photos they take have never left their phones.

The chief reasons: The quality of photos taken with a phone isn't close to what a conventional digital camera can do, and the process for moving those pictures to a computer or a printer over the cellphone carrier's network can be cumbersome and costly, say analysts, carriers and manufacturers.

In the last year, though, the industry has stepped up efforts to provide better picture-taking technology and to make it easier to get the photos out of the cellphone and onto computers and websites.

Higher-end cellphones and so-called smart phones entered the market this year with 2- and 3-megapixel sensors and zoom lenses, comparable to digital cameras from a few years ago. And next year, handset maker Nokia Corp. plans to come out with a 5-megapixel, zoom-lens camera cellphone.

"We're just now starting to see image capabilities that capture truly great pictures," said Jon Mulder, product marketing manager for handset maker Sony Ericsson. "With a 3.2-megapixel camera phone, you can get an 8-by-10 printout with a fantastic image."

And people who don't want to use their airtime and don't want to buy data packages may be able to get those pictures to their personal computers or printers in other ways.

More phones are coming with USB cords and removable disks that enable users to bypass their service providers' networks and transfer photos directly to PCs, printers, hand-held organizers and other devices.

Some higher-priced phones also have a technology called Bluetooth that enables data to be moved wirelessly to nearby printers and computers that have the same technology.

A direct transfer is called side-loading, and carriers including Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA are encouraging the practice. Verizon Wireless typically blocks customers' ability to side-load data unless they pay for it, forcing users to use the network -- and their airtime -- to transfer pictures.

"A curious thing is that even with the unlimited [data] plans Verizon sells, you're still charged airtime for minutes of connectivity," Forrester wireless analyst Charles Golvin said. "I'm not sure how many Verizon customers know that."

Those with newer camera cellphones often are more active photo hounds.

"I take pictures every day," said Nellie McKinley, one of Brinker's co-workers at Long Beach City College. "I have four kids and two granddaughters, and I'm always sending pictures to my kids' phones or their e-mails."

For McKinley, having a camera on the phone she bought last year was essential, and she's planning to upgrade to a newer phone.

Another co-worker, Sida Chau, takes pictures every day with her BlackBerry smart phone, often looking for things that seem surreal to her, from accidents to ordinary events. "I'm really into technology," she said.

Camera cellphones seem to be particularly popular at concerts and sporting events, where "it's insane to watch how many people are sticking their arms out taking pictures," Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak said.

Those who use cellphones for taking pictures are often a different breed of photographer, industry executives say.

"We've gone from the camera as a novelty on the cellphone to a camera enabling social networking," said John Holstrom, director of mobile software applications for handset maker Motorola Inc.

"People are starting to capture daily occurrences -- a day in the life of -- and sending the photos in real time to family and friends or uploading them to blogs," Holstrom said.

For all the technological wizardry, barriers still exist, said John Clelland, senior vice president of marketing for T-Mobile.

"It's not easy. It's not intuitive," he said. "It's often difficult for people to figure out what to do with the photos."

The first camera cellphones required as many as 20 keystrokes to take, store and send a picture, Clelland said. Now, most of those steps have been eliminated.

Typically, the default option is to send pictures through multimedia messaging, called MMS. But that limits the size of photo and video files to 300 kilobytes, so others see only a thumbnail version.

Users can send larger versions -- which offer better resolution -- by e-mail, although people with older phones still may have to go through a number of steps.

"The easier we can make it to transfer photos, the more people will use the cameras," Holstrom said.

Cingular Wireless spokesman Art Navarro said the goal was to make cellphones as robust as possible, without making the photo transfer process "so complicated that it turns off the customer."

On some newer phones, customers can set up a default e-mail address or website so that only one or two clicks are needed to send pictures or video. Carriers also offer photo storage websites.

Free software from companies such as ShoZu Inc. can be downloaded to cellphones and set up to send photos or videos -- with one push of a button -- to a variety of places, such as e-mail addresses, websites, blogs and social networking sites such as MySpace.com.

Although ShoZu is gaining popularity for its simplicity, the easy way to avoid network charges is to use the USB connections that come with many phones, including Sprint's Fusic handset and T-Mobile's Dash.

But even the simplest technology often has a minor twist.

To use the USB cable on the Fusic, for instance, customers have to go to a setting that disables phone calls and enables the connection to their PCs. Once connected, though, it's a simple drag-and-drop from the cellphone's picture folder to the computer.

On the T-Mobile Dash, which also allows unlimited calls and messaging to five people on any network, users must first download a free Microsoft program to their computers before the USB cable will work.

The Dash also has an advantage over nearly all other phones. It can connect to T-Mobile's 30,000 Wi-Fi hot spots worldwide, as well as to free Wi-Fi hot spots, for super-fast Internet connections at no extra cost. At that point, customers are off the carrier's network, so no other data charges apply.

Dash customers send 50% more photo and video messages than other T-Mobile customers, T-Mobile's Clelland said.

Like many services for cellphones -- such as ring tones and mobile television -- revenue from the use of cellphone cameras lags far behind revenue from voice calls, but it is growing quickly.

"Five years ago, data revenue was closer to 1% to 3% of total revenue for Verizon Wireless," spokesman Ken Muche said. "In the last quarter, it was 13%."

Although handset makers are putting cameras in nearly all cellphones, they aren't putting them in some very low-end models or in certain high-end handsets used by some companies.

Alberto Galvez, for instance, uses a Treo phone from Palm Inc. to take pictures of job sites, which the sales engineering agent later uses in his reports.

But some companies, he said, require him to leave his cellphone in his car because they want to guard against anyone seeing photos of the proprietary processes in their plants.

"It's a hassle sometimes because when I need a phone to call my office, I have to find one of their landlines to use," Galvez said.

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james.granelli@latimes.com

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