Take A Picture That Can Fly

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Research firm InfoTrends in Boston estimates that more than 80 million people worldwide will be transmitting digital images on the go by 2004. While some will do this using cameras like the i700, others will use cell phones with built-in lenses or handheld PCs with camera attachments. Low-cost camera sensors can be added to a cell phone for as little as $30. In Japan, a cell phone released by J-Phone this fall includes a built-in digital camera that lets users snap low-resolution photos of themselves, then e-mail them to friends. In the U.S., people can buy for under $100 add-on camera cards that insert into PocketPC, Palm and Handspring handheld PCs.

Like any other emerging technology, mobile digital imaging has its skeptics. For one thing, picture files are much larger than the data and voice streams that existing wireless networks were designed to handle. "The ability to send that much data over wireless lines is up in the air," notes consumer electronics analyst Jay Srivatsa of Gartner Group Dataquest. Higher-speed networks, such as the 128-kbps Ricochet from Metricom now being tested and the 384K TDMA network due out next summer, could help resolve some of these issues.

Even more promising is the so-called Bluetooth technology (named after a 10th century Viking king), which uses short-range radio waves to enable any two devices to transmit data up to 328 ft. Expected to take off next year, Bluetooth will allow users of any digital camera to send images to their cell phones. The phones can then beam the files to a website. This will eliminate the need for a pricey wireless modem card (currently about $400), making the cameras much more economical.

The i700 has room for other enhancements. "Things need to be simplified," says InfoTrends analyst Michelle Lampmann. "There needs to be an invisible solution where it's just snap and share, like setting a VCR." For example, a standard operating system, like the Palm OS, could make the i700 a real alternative to Net-enabled smart phones or handhelds.

"This is first-generation technology," says Vincent Palmieri, Ricoh's U.S. director of electronic commerce. Currently the i700's address book lets people store up to 50 e-mail addresses, but future versions may include a full-featured address book for phone numbers and addresses, he says. The camera's 8MB of internal storage could be beefed up to make room for more productivity applications and games. The i700's PC Card and CompactFlash slots on the side of the unit leave plenty of room for add-ons and software upgrades.

Someday consumers may be able to custom-select the features they want in their personal wireless device. Whether or not the i700 becomes a popular favorite like cell phones and handheld PCs, its release makes clear for the first time that the ability to send and receive images is an integral part of that future.

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