18 years of the camera phone

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Today we're celebrating the camera phone becoming old enough to buy itself a drink. Many happy returns.
18 years of the camera phone

A brief history of the camera phone

The first picture taken on a mobile phone was by Philippe Kahn, a Parisian living in California. He hacked a phone and plugged a camera into it so he could share an image of his new-born daughter on 11 June 1997 (pictured right).

Of course, it wasn’t long before others started working on integrated camera phones, with Kyocera coming up with the Visualphone VP210 in 1999. It could store 20 JPEG files, taken on its 110,000-pixel camera, or make video calls at a stuttering two frames per second to anyone else with a VP210.

However, despite Kahn and Kyocera getting there first, it wasn’t until Sharp rolled out the J-SH04 in Japan that camera phones began to take off.

J Phone frenzy

When it was released, the J-SH04 cost $500. It featured a 110,000-pixel rear camera (0.1MP) and a small, mirrored disk next to the lens to help the user frame their self-portraits (‘selfies’ were unheard of in 2000, but it certainly showcases Sharp’s foresight).

Comments from a 2001 BBC article about the emerging technology will give you a good idea as to how mind boggling the concept of a camera attached to phone was 14 years ago.

Johanna, from Finland, thinks spies will make good use of the emerging technology: “A picture-shooting cellphone certainly is a curious invention. It could be handy for delicate investigation or infiltration. If you disguise it a bit better, who would know to look for a camera on a phone?”

While Robbie from Scotland thinks the innovation is a great idea for the clueless shopper: “It would be an easy way to let like minded hobbyists see what you have got, and, even let the wife choose her present from abroad!”

However, Julian Ilett from the UK is clearly the future thinker in the group, commenting, “It's an obvious move. Eventually all portable gadgets, phone, camera, palm computer must come together in one communications device.” That sounds a lot like a smartphone, Julian.

Nokia ups the game

Following a few years of minor improvements to the camera phones’ lens quality, Nokia released the N90 in 2005. You might remember it as ‘the twisty one’ that kind of resembled a camcorder. It was chunky, and boasted a 2MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics, and even an LED flash.

At the time, Nokia largely dominated the mobile market. The 3310 and 3330 ‘brickphones’, as they’re now known, were still very popular, and with the pioneering camera phones becoming more affordable there was little competition. Until Sony Ericsson turned up…

Enter Sony Ericsson and Samsung

By 2006 it was competition time, and the Sony Ericsson K800i was set to be the next big thing. Proudly emblazoned with Sony’s Cyber-shot digital camera branding, it had instant credibility as a camera.

The 3.2MP shooter with autofocus and image-stabilisation was a step up. It produced colourful and accurate photos and, to put it into perspective, had a higher megapixel count than a lot of the front-facing cameras available now.

Over the next couple of years there was a toing and froing between Samsung, Sony and Nokia, each one-upping the other with slightly higher megapixel counts, (Samsung releasing the i8510 in 2008 with an 8MP camera). But all was set to change with the advent of the smartphone…

The smartphone revolution

When the smartphone turned up, cameras on phones were all of a sudden old hat. It was all about accessing the internet (and actually being able to see the proper version of the site), apps that had more functionality than a calculator, and games in full, non-pixelated colour.

This move, of course, stunted the progression of the camera. Smartphones needed to be slim and attractive, and not chunky like most of the feature phones with lenses.

To put it into perspective, when the HTC Dream was released in 2008 (considered to be one of the first Android smartphones) it featured a lowly 3.15MP camera.

The modern age

From there, you know the story. After trying so hard to make mobiles smaller, smartphones got bigger, but slimmer. They got cameras with higher megapixel counts and better technology. Monsters like the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom and the Nokia Lumia 1020 became more camera than phone.

For a while it was thought that we might start teetering in the other direction – making phones for our cameras. That, thankfully, never took off, and we’ve now reached a happy middle ground, where both our camera and phone can coexist in one device, alongside all our other favourite stuff.

Just think, all this late 80s tech now fits in our pockets.

Have anything to add? Drop us a comment below.

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