Net focuses on free film development

Send in your film and they develop it for free. Internet firms offer incentives to photographers.

On Wednesday, US direct photo developer Seattle FilmWorks, announced it had signed a deal with AT&T to allow the telecommunications company's WorldNet customers to have their pictures posted to a password-protected Web site for free.

"PhotoWorks provides a service where we will scan for free, post digital photos online for free, and, in this case, transfer to the AT&T site for free," said Gary Tashjian, vice president of marketing for Seattle FilmWorks. In addition, for new customers, the costs to develop the first roll of film are on the house. Still, in the mind of Raj Kipoor, president and CEO of startup Snapfish.com Seattle FilmWorks is only going halfway.

Backed by the largest American mail-order photo processor, District Photo, Snapfish.com plans to make even the photo processing free, when it rolls out its own service in the second quarter of 2000.

"Free is a very popular thing," said Kipoor. Snapfish.com plans to take every roll of film sent into their service, develop it, send the prints and negatives to the customer, and then post the images on a secured Web site. "The only catch -- so to speak -- is that you go online to see you pictures," said Kipoor. "On average people are going to see 36 pictures, which means a lot of page views."

With the economics of the Internet -- where eyeballs and not dollars are the currency -- Kipoor hopes to cash in on a multitude of revenue possibilities. Like that photo? Stick it on a coffee mug, enlarge it, have it framed for a relative's birthday, or send a link via e-mail to friends and let them do any or all of those things.

Already, similar thinking has created a host of free services, including free e-mail, free Internet access and now -- even free photo processing.

Just having digital images can be a boon, said Ed Plaskon, AT&T WorldNet Service product director, referring to the latest Seattle FilmWorks deal. "This feature allows our members to easily send photos to family and friends electronically, or to update their AT&T personal Web pages at the click of a button," he said, in a statement.

In 1999, about 95 percent of all U.S. homes had a film-based camera. Only 2 percent had a digital one.

While privacy fears could delay the roll out of such services, for the consumer it's a great deal, said Alexis Gerard, publisher of The Future Image Report. "It goes a long way towards turning a roll of film into a penalty-free proposition," he said. "You no longer have to pay for every frame you take, even if you don't like it."

The big gamble, said Gerard, is whether Snapfish.com will make enough money off of advertising -- even highly targeted advertising -- to pay for the service. With more than 2 million rolls of film developed each day in the United States, if such a service becomes extremely popular there will be a large expense to pay.

Case and point: Seattle FilmWorks already has 1.5 million customers for its own digital service, with perhaps half of those actively using the service.

Seattle FilmWorks' Tashjian is not sure making the development free would speed the growth much more, either. "We have found historically that consumers are price sensitive," he said, "but there is a point with photos where free is too good to be true. There is a point where you decrease demand when you lower the price."

Both companies are waiting to see what develops.

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