Not a pretty picture

Rupert Goodwins: Despite the hype, mobile phones with cameras just won't click until the networks and the handset makers make the basics work.

Despite its religious overtones, Christmas for many is and always has been a pagan business, devoted more to keeping the depths of winter at bay through life-endangering consumption than contemplation of higher things. If you live in London, you'll already be enjoying the party season: the extra exercise in stepping over comatose businessmen on Soho pavements, the ear-cleansing properties of a bulging bar replete with raucous Hoorays and Concorde-level ragga music, and that special scent the Underground puts on to celebrate: all combine to lift the heart and send the feet racing for the nearest airport.

Phone manufacturers are celebrating the Saturnalian season too. Camera phones are made for such times: not only do you always have your camera at hand if you find your boss doing something extraordinary with a fire extinguisher and 13 copies of Loaded, but you can waft the image to safety in seconds over the phone network. Combine the life-enhancing possibilities of such ace technology with the need to find acceptable presents, and you can see why the combination of Stella and Santa is the phone industry's very own stocking filler.

There is but one turtledove turd in the tinsel -- the darn things don't work. Purely in the spirit of scientific endeavour, I and a select team of ZDNet UK experts have been suffering Stolly-soaked party after gin-sodden bash, armed with the latest mobile phones. Our task -- to relay to each other the status of each party, so we know which ones to schmooze, and to collect sufficient pictures of a compromising nature to ensure that no PR or marketing manager dare disturb our afternoon naps again. We failed. You wouldn't know it from the adverts for the gizmos, which show beautifully clear images shuttled effortlessly between phones, but the idea that you take a recognisable picture you can then send your friends is wrong on both points.

Let's start with picture quality. Most of these gizmos will capture images at up to 640x480 pixels, which doesn't sound a lot these days but is perfectly OK for a snapshot -- your TV image isn't much better than that. But with the tiny fixed-focus lenses, cheap CMOS image sensors and rampaging compression used to get the image size down to sendable levels, the image is mostly mud. Add the peculiar aversion the phone makers have to adding a flash to their cameras, and the chance of getting anything worth looking at in any indoor situation rapidly approaches the number of sober people on the Northern Line at midnight on a Friday.

But let us say that through skill, luck and an exceptionally compliant -- possibly glowing -- subject you have managed to capture a picture with recognisable elements. You decide to send it to your friend. After much fumbling with the user interface from Hades, it ambles off into the ether. Your friend gets a bleep, looks at their phone and sees a gloriously displayed... URL. Yes, unless you have a compatible phone on the same network as your pal, all you get is an invitation to check out a Web site where the picture your friend took is currently residing.

Miserable, and all the more so because the Multimedia Messaging specification that lies at the heart of the system -- the really clever bit -- was designed to work between networks, and between different kinds of phones, from the outset. It's a smart piece of design, capable of a great deal more than just shuttling pictures from boozehound to tippler. It knows about speech, video, music and text: there's still work to be done on how handsets cope with disgorging such rich content, but it's safe to say that a phone capable of taking a colour picture is able to display one -- so that's no excuse.

Phone companies have been here before. Take SMS itself -- the first text message was sent ten years ago, at Christmas -- that season again -- 1992. That drifted along as a curiosity until 1999, when the networks finally worked out how to exchange 160 bytes between each other. If you were an early adopter of digital mobile technology, you might remember the endless struggle to find a gateway somewhere on the planet that'd forward your text messages to your pals on other networks -- for a while, it felt like the phone companies were desperate to stop this happening. They caved in, and text messaging became one of the biggest and most profitable surprises in their life. Why they can't remember back three years is a mystery even Santa can't fathom.

As for the picture quality: well, they're no camera makers. Nor should they be, nor need they be. Once camera makers put Bluetooth in their gizmos and phone makers do the same for all theirs, then the problem has gone. There can't really be any other solution, as the economics will always make stand-alone cameras much better pound for pound, and the phone companies can concentrate on adding value in places they understand, like usable software and decent message handling features. At least, I assume there's a phone company out there who understands usability. It has to happen one day.

Until that happens, the Yuletide carousers can continue in their drunken ways, safe from the terror of instant picture messaging. And when the phone companies finally sort themselves out, remember an old Hollywood tip: when the cameras come out, make sure you're the one behind them.

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