What makes a camera phone?

It is time to raise a question. So far, the definition of a camera phone was pretty straightforward: a cell phone that sports an auxiliary digital camera, whereas auxiliary means that the camera function is not the device’s primary function — which is communication –, and that the camera is inferior to a dedicated digital camera, whose primary function is taking pictures.

What, though, if this equation isn’t upheld? What if a cell phone were to sport a real digital camera, with optical zoom, with a sensor at least 1/2.33″ in size, with full digital camera functionality? Or should I rephrase — what if a digital camera would sport cell phone functionality? Where would then be the line to draw between a cell phone, a digital camera, a camera phone and a phone camera?

The causal problem is, of course, that us humans need to define categories for things, need to be able to classify things, in order not make our world too complicated. So, without categories, we cannot live. The problem with classification arises then, when boundaries between categories begin to dissolve, when you can classify a certain object into more than one category. At this point, a general principle in communication can potentially be violated: the principle that within a given communicational system, one symbol (be it a spoken or written word, a graphical element or any other means of transporting information) should refer to one concept. When boundaries between categories are fluid, your options for designation are manifold. When communicational partners cannot agree on one common symbol for a given concept, though, communication becomes ambiguous.

Let’s get back to the topic — camera phones.

When cell phones first got fitted with digital cameras, their resolution was far behind contemporary dedicated digital cameras, their sensors were much smaller, and their functionality was only very basic. In effect, they couldn’t do much more than take a picture and save it. (Granted, early digital cameras couldn’t to much more, either …)

The Sharp J-SH04, the world's first camera phone (detail). Picture provided by gadgetizor.com.

Soon, though, digital cameras in cell phones got better and better. And it didn’t take long until cell phones — which by that time were already more than mere phones, but actual multi-purpose communication devices — started being equipped with cameras that featured autofocus, optical zoom, larger sensors, high megapixel count, flash etc. But they were still pretty easily recognizeable as cell phones — communication was still their main purpose, which was conveyed not only by their design, but also by their functionality. Some manufacturers even started to label their cellphones with their respective camera brand names — Sony, for example, has had a series of CyberShot phones for some years now.

The Sony Ericsson K800, Sony's firs CyberShot phone. Picture from Wikipedia.

Today, we have several contestants that cannot easily be classified as being the one or the other. For example, the current iPhone sports a digital camera that can easily compete with entry-level digital cameras in terms of image quality, and even surpasses them in functionality, as you can use dozens of photography-related apps to enhance the camera function and the images it takes. Some people are said to even buy an iPhone just for its camera.

The iPhone 4 (detail), with rear camera for photos and front camera for video telephony. Picture from Wikipedia.

Then, there’s the recently announced Lumix Phone. Branded with Lumix, Panasonic’s brand name for their digital cameras, the name already conveys that it is intended to be more than a mere camera phone — but a full digital camera, that, incidentally, is also a cell phone. And just today, another such hybrid was announced. Both claim to be a digital camera sporting a cell phone.

The Panasonic Lumix Phone. Picture provided by photorumors.com.

The Altek Leo phone camera, sporting 14 megapixels and 3x optical zoom. Picture provided by photoscala.de.

So, where’s the line to be drawn? Are these devices to be considered as camera phones, i. e. cell phone sporting a digital camera, or as phone cameras, i. e. digital cameras sporting cell phones? Are they even still to be considered phones, as they are effectively little computers that can do almost as much as any desktop computer (yet on a slightly less sophisticated level)?

I, for my part, am starting to feel the effects of the lack of unambiguous means of categorization for these gadgets, as simply the boundaries between computers, PDAs, phones, cameras and other electronic devices have not only long ago started to blur, but are becoming more and more fluid, as the constantly increasing computational power of integrated circuits allows for more and more miniaturization, by which more and more functions can be packed into a single device.

But, as human communicational means are always striving for optimization, I’m sure a consensus about the categorization of new developments will always be found —  among those to whom it matters. Which is not me … Call me oldfashioned, call me a purist — but of me, a camera ought ot be a camera, i. e. a device that takes pictures. Maybe that’s why I fancy my M8 so much. And a cell phone ought ot be a phone, i. e. a device with which I can make phone calls, and eventually also exchange short messages. But I’m sure a lot of people like the idea of having multiple functions in one device, which means they don’t have to lug around a seperate camera, a seperate phone, a seperate computer and a seperate music player. And here’s where things like the iPhone have a market. But again, that’s not me …

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