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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

The Significance of Sony's 3G-Enabled Camera

Gadget hounds seem to hate the idea of a ‘cloud camera’—but they can’t imagine its place in the Internet of Things.

  • March 17, 2011

On Wednesday of last week, Peter Rojas of Gizmodo, Engadget and GDGT broke the news that Sony might be working on a point and shoot camera with a 3G radio inside it. The announcement didn’t exactly make waves – a number of outlets dutifully reported it, but on the scale of random press release to spycam photos of the next iPad, it rated somewhere on the low end.

Probably because most of us are already carrying around 3G enabled cameras – namely, our smartphones. Point and shoot cameras can take better pictures than smart phones, but their dwindling sales reveal that for casual pictures, most people are content to carry a single, integrated device. So pundits could be forgiven for being less than enthusiastic – most saw it as a johnny-come-lately strategy on the part of Sony; a gimmick.

But what if adding a 3G radio isn’t just a trick? There are so many things that could go wrong with this plan, I’m almost convinced that Sony has something in mind that just might make it through the gauntlet of obvious objections to such a device.

Start with the data plan. As device makers like Amazon have shown with the Kindle, it’s possible to set up deals with cell carriers that allow a non-phone device to piggyback on existing 3G networks without breaking the bank. Would Sony really create a camera that required yet another monthly data plan? It seems unlikely – who would share pictures from a point and shoot consistently enough to justify the cost?

Now think about the 3G radio – the one in the iPhone 3GS only cost $13.00; it’s the kind of item that will only drop in price. Obviously, integrating 3G into a device has other costs – testing, regulatory, integration, not to mention the substantial cloud infrastructure to support it.

But here’s the point: the fact that 3G is coming to something as trivial and increasingly old-school as a point and shoot camera illustrates that all of these hurdles can be overcome in an everyday consumer electronic device.

If I’m right, Sony’s play isn’t about sharing images with your friends straight from your camera – or isn’t just about that. A camera that can connect to the Internet from anywhere can talk to every other device on the Internet. It can tell them about its location, in real time. It can receive information, and modify the way it functions accordingly. Maybe it knows where other cameras like it are – perhaps that enables some emergent social property that we can’t even conceive of.

Can smart phones do this? Of course – that’s why the tech press and the general public can’t stop talking about them. They become more useful every day; we’re not even close to exhausting their possibilities. But what happens when ever-cheaper and more trivial objects are connected to the internet through the only ubiquitous wireless network there is – the cell phone infrastructure?

When your camera and your phone and your car and your ebook reader are talking to the lamp post and your thermostat and your city’s traffic control hub and every geo-located database on the internet, and maybe your toaster is tweeting, too, weird things are going to start happening.

Just as we couldn’t predict that while the Internet would start with email, it would eventually metastasize into social networking, Google Earth, Twitter, Youtube and all the rest, the Internet of Things is going to lead us places we can hardly imagine. There are just too many potential layers of emergent utility that could blossom from the interconnection of just about everything with a microchip inside it.

The Internet of Things is coming, and Sony’s point and shoot is going to be a part of it. Let’s see if they use the increasingly trivial cost of adding an always-on connection to the global network do something clever; something no one’s thought of yet. If the product ever sees the light of day, I bet they will.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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