Are Camera Phones Killing the Digital Camera?

Convergence of mobile technologies is often treated as a foregone conclusion; the assumption is that, at some point, all of today’s gadgetry will be consolidated in a single device.

Sony Ericsson recently released the 905a mobile phone to AT&T subscribers. The 905a mobile phone features an 8 megapixel camera bearing Sony’s Cyber-shot moniker usually reserved for its line of digital cameras. This is clearly a sign of convergence, but is it also a sign of impending obsolescence of the stand-alone digital camera?

At first glance, it looks likely. Buying even a basic mobile phone without a camera has become very difficult. The once premium feature is now available in virtually every phone offered by the Big-4 carriers, and in many cases on phones that are free with a contract.

Are mobile phones featuring high-powered cameras replacing the conventional digital camera in the minds of consumers? To explore this, I looked at Compete’s data to see what proportion of shoppers interested in digital cameras from major manufacturers* were also shopping for mobile phones with high resolution cameras (5 megapixels or moreˇ) between November 2008 and June 2009.

The high resolution camera phone is not a true substitute for the digital camera. The data above shows a low level of active online cross shopping between the two products; consumers aren’t actively comparing digital cameras to the phones that offer the most comparable photographic performance. Less than 2% of digital camera shoppers also shopped for a mobile phone with a high resolution camera during the same month. Compete’s Smartphone Intelligence data seems to support this; 79% of smartphone owners surveyed during Q1 2009 stated that they owned and regularly used a conventional digital camera despite having a built-in camera in their phone.

Resolution could be an obstacle to displacement of the digital camera. With the exception of the Samsung Memoir, all of the mobile phones included in the consideration set featured cameras with resolution just above 5 megapixels, inferior even to inexpensive digital cameras on the market. Mobile phone cameras are likely subject to a different set of expectations; decent picture quality suffices for spontaneous snapping and sharing.

It will be interesting to see how consumer habits develop once we start to see diminishing returns from increased picture resolution. Once picture quality offered by mobile phones is indistinguishable from that of a digital camera, true substitution could be in the cards.

For now, the digital camera seems safe.