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VIPs: Virally Interactive Pixels

Millions of Japanese schoolgirls can’t be wrong: there’s always a market for instant gratification.

I was wrong. Utterly. I honestly believed digital-camera cell phones were a silly, bandwidth-hogging gimmick more appropriate to the giggling-Japanese-schoolgirl market than to harried American motor-mouths. Foolish me.

Camera phones threaten to surpass DVD players as the personal technology devices with the fastest-growing market in history. Analysts estimate that 57 million camera phones were sold worldwide in 2003, compared to 44 million stand-alone digital cameras. Nokia says most of its new phones will have built-in cameras. Say “cheese.”

Note to self: start paying more attention to Japanese schoolgirls as global technoculture’s beta site.

Second note to self: there is always a mass market in instant gratification. It’s clearly worked for digital music and handheld games. Edwin Land anticipated the appeal of instant photography more than 50 years ago. Marrying that sensibility with mobile transmission is a no-brainer. I should have known that Hey! Look at this right now! is just as powerful an interpersonal message as Hey! Listen to me right now!

Being wrong about successful innovation forces you to look at it with new wariness and respect. The success of camera phones leads me to suspect that images will matter far more than voice in spreading the next generation of “instant gratification” telecommunications innovations. I like what I could see.

What I want-what I need-is a camera phone that would let me take a picture of an article in a newspaper and translate it into a machine-readable form that I could send on to a colleague, a client, or, indeed, myself. In other words, I want my mobile camera/phone to be a handheld scanner with built-in optical character recognition.

If the phone keypad would let me highlight, delete, or otherwise edit the text document I’m sending, that would be even better. Would I settle for sending it to my laptop for editing? Sure. The point here is to give me more reasons to take more types of pictures.

Instant photography, however, is an insufficient metaphor. My mobile should be marketed as a general input/output device. If it works well enough, it will do away with the traditional boundary between “photos” and “scans.”

But wait! I already have a $79 key-chain memory device that plugs into the USB ports on my computers and lets me carry up to half a gigabyte of data between home and work. This accessory could double as the connection device between my camera phone and my PC. It would be terrifically cool if I could take pictures and plug my key chain into my camera phone to download them, then transfer them to my home computer. It would be equally cool if I could copy an entire photo album to my key chain, then use the phone to sort through it and send whichever picture-or document-I wished. In other words, I want my phone to have at least one USB port.

Yes, I know about the Handspring Treo and its knockoffs, which attempt to blend phone, camera, datebook, e-mail, and Web-surfing capabilities into a single form-factored box. But while these technologies foster certain forms of “instant interconnectivity,” they’re not yet tailored to supply the kind of immediate gratification that’s making simple camera phones so popular.

In the same way a camera phone makes it easy to “snap & send,” the next generation of visualization innovation could come from making it ever easier to “snap & back up” or “snap & scan” or “scan & edit.” Think of mobile phones as a channel for viral marketing, where consumers convert their friends to new products simply by using them. Camera phones therefore become digital platforms for “VIPs”-Virally Interactive Pixels. Both mobile manufacturers and service providers have a powerful incentive to promote VIPs as the messaging medium of the future. In the same way people trade games wirelessly and respond to voice and wireless text messages, they should be able to respond to VIPs.

Increasingly ubiquitous VIP interconnectivity should inspire different kinds of communications behaviors. My bet on a “metric of the future” is “instant forwarding”: that is, in the same way people forward jokes and URLs on mailing lists, they will immediately forward some VIPs they receive on their mobiles. Will they send these goodies to their own PCs? Or will they forward them to the mobiles and/or e-mail addresses of friends and colleagues? If I’m running a cellular service, I have to believe that the growth of “IF” for VIPs will become one of my critical indicators of customer use.

Then again, I’d feel more confident about betting on IF-VIPs if I knew that mobile scan & edit-and not just snap & send photography-was capturing the attention of Japanese schoolgirls.

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