There were a few eyebrows raised when Samsung commenced the launch of its S9 and S9+ devices at Barcelona a day before the Mobile World Congress got underway. The company’s executives spent some time on stage stressing how the younger and new generation of users used pictures to convey messages rather than words. No, contrary to some cynical tweets (one by the author), this was not an attempt to discredit the English language or to render the phone keyboard useless – the effort instead was to stress just how important cameras have become for smartphones these days.
On the surface, this seems to be a good move. After all, more pictures are now taken on phone cameras than on “real” ones. And thanks to the wide prevalence of social networks and media, everyone wants to share more images online than ever before. Photography has been largely democratised (no matter how much the DSLR crowd might harrumph) and everyone with a smartphone now no longer hopes, but expects, to take good photographs. Which of course, has led in turn to a sea change in camera quality across all price segments of smartphones – we were even surprised at the kind of results we got from a relatively low-end device, the Redmi 4A last year and cameras are only getting better.
No, there is no questioning the importance of cameras in a phone. The big question, however, is whether they can be the main factor for someone opting for a device. Yes, we do know that all other things being equal (good old ceteris paribus), the camera becomes one of the deciding factors in a smartphone purchase. The key words there, however, are “all other things equal.” Because well, they frequently are not.
Indeed, the history of camera phones is littered with instances in which devices that have mainly fought on camera muscle have not exactly rocked the market. Yes, in the early days of phone photography, Sony Ericsson’s Cyber-Shot series was able to grab significant market share while fighting mainly on its camera. But after an initial period, this began to change. So much so that even the Nokia N95 was marketed mainly on being “what computers would become” rather than mainly its excellent (for that time) 5.0-megapixel camera. Motorola’s attempts to create a camera-driven series with the Zine came to a cropper as did LG’s with the Viewty – and both series had very good cameras. Even the mighty Sony Ericsson was unable to sell the concept of a very powerful camera on its Satio phone. And while this was happening, Apple was shaking up the phone world with a device that had initially rather mediocre cameras but scored heavily on ease of use.
Apple, of course, has since gone on to making the camera one of the highlights of its iPhone range, with its iconic “Shot on iPhone” series of campaigns. Notably, however, these campaigns always came well AFTER the phones had been launched and were preceded by advertising that highlighted other features. Meanwhile, other brands kept trying to come out with phones whose strongest suite were their cameras. But success was elusive. This was most obvious in the case of Nokia, which literally threw the marketing kitchen sink at its phone cameras from the N8 to the 41-megapixel PureView 808 and Lumia 1020. It also tried to leverage the low light ability of the Lumia 920. But success was at best limited. Of course, this did not stop others from trying – Samsung came out with phones that looked more like cameras with optical zooms, Asus tried the ZenFone Zoom series, HTC harped on Ultrapixels, and Lenovo tried to attract photographers with its Vibe Shot. However, none of these really met the expectations that manufacturers (and many reviewers had of them).
In most cases, these devices were undone by factors that pertained to basic functionality and design – the Galaxy Zoom series was seen as bulky, the Asus ZenFone Zoom’s UI and design did not strike the right chord, the Nokia N8 was undermined by its interface, the Lumia 1020 and Vibe Shot were seen as overpriced for the specs they offered and so on. The important thing to note is that in most cases people did not really have a problem with the cameras on these devices, but other factors overruled photographic excellence. And even as this was happening, thanks to constant improvement in phone camera technology, photography on phones, in general, kept getting better. To the extent that while in the early days of photography, a good photograph taken by a phone was an exception, in recent times it is more often than not is the rule.
Yes, people are taking more pictures than ever, but the fact also is that one can now get a “good enough” camera on even a phone that does not cost the earth. The emergence of “budget flagships” has also meant that you can take reasonably high-quality photographs and videos on devices that are not premium ones – a OnePlus 5T, a Xiaomi Mi 6, a Moto Z2 Force or an Honor V10 will hand you plenty of shooting options at a price that is almost half that of high-profile premium smartphones. The difference in photographic quality between segments is becoming more nuanced than obvious. And if the fates of the Google Pixel 2 and HTC’s latest flagships are anything to go by, an excellent camera can still not overrule other shortcomings – real or perceived – in devices.
This is the challenge Samsung faces with its decision to market the S9 and S9+ as photography powerhouses – the fact that no matter how good the cameras are, most consumers (especially at premium flagship levels) will evidently not rate them over and above other, more “phone-y” factors. No, they will not ignore cameras altogether (as Xiaomi discovered when it was panned in some sections for the camera on the Mi Mix 2), but beyond a certain point, cameras cannot overshadow other aspects of the device. Samsung’s ultra focus (pun intended) on cameras in its new flagships is a bit surprising, to be honest, because cameras have not really been a problem for the Galaxy S series of late – the S7 and S8 had excellent cameras. That said, the cameras on the S7 and S8 sat along with other features on the devices and did not dominate them. In the S9 and S9+, they pretty much are the stars of the show.
The big question is: will they do enough to steal it?