Sony creates new mobile product category with lens-style cameras

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At IFA, Sony announces the lens-style camera, which is a new kind of smart accessory for smartphones. This camera works exclusively with smartphones and includes:

– A high quality zoom lens
– Local storage using micro SD cards
– A Sony imaging sensor
– A detachable variable size clip that attaches the lens-style camera to a smartphone if desired
– WiFi and NFC for wireless connectivity with smartphones
– Support for Android smartphones and Apple’s iOS. Consumers use the Play Memories app to control the camera shutter or wireless transfer photos and videos

There are two models:

– QX10 which includes a 18.2 megapixel Sony Exmor R CMOS sensor, Sony G lens, and 10 times optical zoom.
– QX100 with a 20.2 megapixel one inch Sony sensor, a Carl Zeiss lens, and three times zoom. This is the same sensor used in Sony’s high end RX100M2 compact camera.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-QX100
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-QX100


Since the end of the Sony Ericsson joint venture, the new Sony has been making grand statements about a unified strategy across business units and an end to silos. With the lens-style cameras, Sony is starting to show that this “One Sony” strategy is more than just talk.

It’s very rare for a company to create a product category, but that is what Sony is doing with the QX10 and QX100 lens-style cameras.

Sony is using capabilities adjacent to mobile from its camera business to disrupt smartphone imaging. Alongside these new products, Sony’s new smartphone flagship the Xperia Z1 leverages these capabilities with a similar image sensor and lens to the QX10, although without optical zoom.

Sony is a key smartphone maker to watch because like Samsung, LG, and Apple it can trickle down capabilities from outside the mobile market to make its smartphones more compelling. By comparison, the handset makers that are mobile pure-plays — HTC, BlackBerry and Nokia — have been struggling.

With wide compatibility Sony aims to convert Apple and Samsung users

Sony is smart to make their lens-style cameras compatible with non-Sony handsets because this maximises the potential market for the lens-style cameras and equally importantly it provides Sony Mobile with an opportunity to convert Apple and Samsung smartphone owners to become Sony smartphone owners in time. By maximising the addressable market, Sony increases the appeal of the lens-style cameras to retailers and mobile operators and makes both more likely to stock the product.

These products also outflank Sony’s smartphone competitors’ imaging strategies. Where Samsung offers the Galaxy S4 Zoom handset that greatly compromises the size and weight of the handset in order to include a compact camera’s capabilities such as optical zoom, Sony offers the best of both worlds. Consumers can use a lens-style camera when photos are really important, but still have a slim and light smartphone at all other times.

Sony’s approach also overtakes Nokia’s imaging product strategy. Buyers of Nokia’s Lumia Windows Phones must opt for the most expensive smartphone model — the Lumia 1020 — to enjoy comparable imaging quality. Cheaper Lumia smartphones offer progressively lower specification cameras. Other handset makers also make the same connection between higher smartphone prices and better camera quality.

By contrast, Sony now has a multi-track strategy: Consumers can upgrade their existing smartphone camera with a lens-style camera, or consumers can choose a cheaper mid-range smartphone and pair it with a lens-style camera, or consumers can opt for Sony’s new flagship Xperia Z1 smartphone that includes a similar sensor to the QX10 but rated at 20 megapixels.

While the QX10 and QX100 may seem expensive at USD250 and USD500 for mere accessories, the success of Beats headsets points to a substantial market for high quality, stylish, and premium mobile accessories.

Consumers that might have considered purchasing a compact camera enjoy several advantages over buying a similar specification complete camera, the lens-style cameras are:

– Cheaper. For example the QX100 includes the same sensor and optics as Sony’s RX100M2 camera which retails for over USD200 more at around USD750.
– Smaller and more portable. Because the lens-style camera lacks a screen, they are a completely different cylindrical shape.
– More versatile. Due to the separation of screen with user interface into two devices — lens-style camera and smartphone — the lens-style camera enables a range of creative photography such as easy group self photos, shooting over crowds or even around corners.
– Tight integration with smartphone apps and social networks. Using Sony’s Play Memories camera app smartphone owners can automatically wirelessly transfer photos to their phone, and then share with any of their smartphone’s regular social network apps such as 500px, Flickr, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, or Twitter.

Disadvantages with first generation

However there are disadvantages with this first generation of lens-style cameras that Sony is aware of and will iterate with subsequent products if they become barriers to consumer adoption:

– The lens-style cameras lack a dedicated flash. This reduces their utility for shooting indoors in poor lighting. They still perform better than almost any smartphone camera because they have large bright lenses, but the lack of flash means they will need to use longer shutter speeds and/or larger apertures to take a photo which will make them less effective at shooting fast moving subjects indoors than their standalone camera equivalents.

– Handling is more complicated than a normal camera. Attaching a lens-style camera onto many smartphones creates a combined device where the shape and weight is a compromise. Consumers must either touch the capture button on the barrel of the lens to take a photo or use the smartphone touch screen. By contrast a conventional camera has capture button precisely where it’s most convenient to press with an index finger.

(Written by Ian Fogg, Analyst and Director Mobile & Telecoms at IHS)

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