Will Shutterbugs Snap Up New Digital Frames?

Dedicated electronic frames are gaining in power and coming down in price.

Visitors to Bill Gates’ Lake Washington mansion frequently marvel at the large flat-screen monitors hanging on many of the walls, displaying a rotating selection of paintings and art photos. It’s the perfect amenity for any billionaire easily bored by old-fashioned static images. But now similar technology, on a smaller scale, is becoming affordable for the less-than-mega-rich. It’s the desktop digital picture frame – a decade-old technology that’s now available for under $150, with improved features that make it easy to create 24-hour slide shows of your favorite digital snapshots.

Picture this: New digital photo frames from Ceiva Logic measure either seven inches or eight inches diagonally and display a continuous slide show of digital images. Photos can be transferred to the device either by uploading them to Ceiva’s Web servers and then down to the frame via telephone modem each night, or by inserting a storage card such as a Secure Digital (SD) card.

Digital frames have been on the market since at least 2000, but their appeal has been limited, thanks to high prices, limited storage capacity, and the longstanding hassle of getting pictures from a camera or a computer into the frames. The newest generation of frames, many of which were on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, sport a wider combination of connectivity and storage options, as well as simpler interfaces and a range of price levels.

On exhibit at CES were new digital frames from familiar names such as Kodak, Samsung, Westinghouse, Sony, and Philips, but also from lesser known sources such as Ceiva Logic, Mustek, Pandigital, A-Data, SmartParts, Fidelity, Media Street, Everstar, Royal, Edge Tech, Pacific Digital, PhotoVu, and Parrot. Indeed, no fewer than 56 manufacturers showed off their digital photo displays at the show, according to the trade publication Print Business.

Ceiva, one of the earliest purveyors of digital frames, showed off two new devices with screens measuring 7 inches and 8 inches diagonally, a big improvement over the 5.5-inch screens on the company’s original product, released in 2000. But a more important change – and one executives hope will significantly increase the device’s appeal – is the addition of a memory-card reader on the device’s backside. Users can now take photos on their digital cameras or camera phones, transfer the device’s memory card to the frame, and view their photos instantly.

The only way to get photos into previous Ceiva models was to upload them to Ceiva’s website; every night, the frames would connect to Ceiva servers and download the most recently added pictures via a built-in dialup modem and a telephone line. Users could also mark their photos for delivery to friends and relatives with their own frames. The dialup service is still available on the new frames, and costs $9.95 per month or $99.95 per year. But the card reader make the frame accessible to owners who don’t want to pay subscription fees.

“The new Ceivas are really re-thought from the ground up,” says David Simon, Ceiva’s vice president of business development. “The market is clearly saying it’s ready for card-reader picture frames. But what still sets us apart is the ability to do distance sharing over the phone line.”

Without a subscription package, the 7-inch frame costs $149.99 – the same price as the company’s original 5.5-inch screen. The 8-inch frame goes for $199.95.

Parrot, a Paris-based maker of mobile phone accessories and hands-free car phones, is taking a more radical approach with its new line of digital frames. The frames don’t have modems or card readers – just Bluetooth wireless chipsets.

The devices are aimed at owners of Bluetooth-enabled camera phones, who can send stored photos wirelessly to any Parrot frame within a 10-meter radius, says Edward Valdez, president of Parrot’s U.S. operations. “These days, virtually as many pictures are taken with camera phones as with digital cameras worldwide, and we think camera phones are going to continue to cannibalize the digital camera market,” Valdez says “As people realize that they can get photo quality from their camera phones that is nearly as good as what they get from their digital cameras, they really want to know how they can do something with those images.”

Parrot introduced a Bluetooth photo viewer with a 3.5-inch screen last year; at CES, it unveiled a 7-inch device. Visitors to Parrot’s booth at the show could point their own phones at a wall-sized matrix of Parrot frames and see their pictures in an instant. “Every person, independent of the type of phone they had, could try it and do it. That’s when people get convinced.”

Parrot’s 7-inch photo viewer, which will be available in the second quarter of 2007, will retail for $239; the 3.5-inch viewer, which is portable enough to be passed around to friends at the lunch table, costs $169.

The rush to put new digital frames on the market is largely a byproduct of progress in a seemingly unrelated area: portable DVD players. To bring the prices of players down while simultaneously enlarging their screens, Asian manufacturers have devised cheaper ways to mass-produce thin-film-transistor LCD screens – the devices’ most expensive components - in the sub-laptop, 5- to 10-inch size range. “Leveraging those capabilities [is] enabling them to make larger screens for digital frames and bring the price down at the same time,” says Ed Lee, a digital photography analyst at research firm InfoTrends in Weymouth, MA. “You can get them now for as low as $130.” That’s not much more than the typical household’s annual photo printing bill.

Digital camera owners worldwide made, or ordered, 16 billion paper prints of their digital photographs in 2006, according to InfoTrends. That was a big increase over the 13.2 billion prints made in 2005, and marked the first time that the volume of prints from digital photos exceeded the volume of prints from photos captured on traditional film.

But a much larger number of digital pictures – between 70 billion and 100 billion, industry insiders estimate – never made it to the printer. Consumers posted some of these images on Internet photo sharing sites such as Photobucket and Flickr, but most of the the files are now consigned to sit on memory cards or hard drives, where they will be viewed rarely, if ever. “There are so many images being captured now,” observes Ed Lee, a digital photography analyst at InfoTrends. “Who can afford the time to look at them all?”

In my own experience, digital frames provide a convenient and unintrusive venue for these unprinted images. All of the frames use similar slide-show formats, with adjustable display times and transitions; once set to run, the frames can cycle through hundreds of pictures, including, perhaps, the occasional surprise photo you had entirely forgotten. If prices for frame continue to drop, it seems inevitable that they will become just as common a part of 21st-century environments as the family photos on our desks at work and the wedding and vacation pictures hanging in our hallways at home.

Still, Lee is unconvinced that 2007 is the year for the takeoff of the digital photo frame. “The new frames do offer a different viewing experience, which is nice,” he says. “But is the market going to really explode this year? I still have my reservations.”

Despite improved connectivity, screen size, resolution, and storage capacity, digital frames still have a few serious limitations. For one thing, they must be connected at all times to an AC power outlet. “There is no way to run these frames constantly on batteries,” says Lee. “In which case you are physically limited in where you can put these things.” At CES, many vendors embedded their digital frames in the walls of their booths; unseen, of course, were the power cables snaking through these walls. The chances that the average frame buyer will hire the carpenters and electricians needed to install frames this way in their homes seem low.

In any case, the displays on these devices are still too small to be seen clearly across a room, meaning they’re more appropriate for the coffee table than the conservatory walls. And consumers may also balk at spending $150 to $250 on a dedicated photo frame when they could put the money toward more other media devices that have reasonably-sized screens and greater versatility, such as laptops, Apple’s coming iPhone (which doubles as a wide-screen video and photo viewer), and the new crop of ultra-portable PCs from Samsung, Sony, and Nokia. Dedicated frames will provide one more way to exhume old digital photos from their electronic shoeboxes - but frame makers will be lucky if the competition with computer and phone makers comes even close to a photo finish.

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