Defending cameras from the smartphone revolution

Photo courtesy Flickr user Emergency Brake

(MoneyWatch) There's little doubt that the last half-decade has been nothing short of a complete smartphone coup. In the space of just a few years, PDAs like Microsoft's (MSFT) Pocket PC and the Palm Pilot were thrown on the technological trash heap. The Internet has gone mobile, with analysts predicting that most web traffic will soon come from smartphones and tablets. And Microsoft is so concerned that it has remade its core operating system, Windows, into a mobile-centric experience, even on the desktop (much to the consternation of many customers).

And that's not all: The smartphone appears to be killing the digital camera only a few years after the digital camera killed film.

The evidence for this trend is all around us. The iPhone was, for a time, the most commonly used camera on Flickr; these days, it ranks a solid third. Compact digital camera sales are down, and major manufacturers are floundering. For example, Nikon recently admitted that it was searching for relevance in a smartphone marketplace, and said it was considering developing a "non-camera" consumer product.

There's little doubt that smartphones have made photography utterly ubiquitous. There's an old saying that "the best camera is the one you have with you," and in that sense smartphone cameras are awesome. More photos are taken today than at any time in the history of photography, and for obvious reasons. Not only do smartphones have the advantage of traditional digital cameras -- taking photos is essentially free - but since everyone has their phone with them at all times, it's painless to capture literally everything on "film."

Despite such gains, it's also worth reflecting what has been lost in the shift to phone cameras. As I recently lamented in the monthly eHow Tech Geek Vs Geek debate (which I write with former MoneyWatch contributor Rick Broida), smartphones take relatively poor photos under many conditions, and that is reducing the overall quality level of the images we capture.

I love the way technology has a way of generally raising quality, but there are always exceptions. MP3s are inferior to CDs and LPs, but their conveniences trumps audio quality, so an entire generation has been raised listening to music that sounds worse than what their parents listened to. Likewise, digital cameras are louder, lack precision in controlling exposure and can't make a call. And because of that, an entire generation now takes terrible photos and has given up even trying to take many of the kinds of photos that their parents shot.

All is not necessarily lost. Market data shows that digital SLR sales are actually up -- so some people are buying high-end cameras to fuel their photography needs where smartphones can't tread. But based on my anecdotal experience, those people are frequently leaving their cameras at home -- even on vacation trips, for example -- and settling for their smartphones out of convenience.

What do you think? Read the entire debate and let me know where you land in the balance between cameras versus phones and quality versus convenience.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Emergency Brake