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Camera Phones – Pervasive Computing’s Purple Cow

  • August 29 2003, 1:00am EDT

Maybe I'm getting too old for this. What I initially dismissed as a mere toy for teenagers may turn out to be pervasive computing's Purple Cow. Seth Godin, who wrote the book, Purple Cow, defines it as "something truly remarkable." A Purple Cow stands out from the crowd, it's new and exceptional all at once. Does a cell phone with an itty-bitty camera on it meet these criteria? "C'mon, can't be," was my initial thought. It appears that I was wrong, and the multitudes of users buying these devices are indeed right.

Camera phones have already been a tremendous success overseas and are well on their way to achieving similar success in the U.S. Gartner predicts that in 2003 more than 30 million camera phones will be sold worldwide and estimates that by 2005 one out of every four cellular phones being made will include an integrated camera.

This success is not being fueled by an unfulfilled demand for digital cameras. It is being fueled by the camera phone's stature as a Purple Cow. Camera phones have all the same cellular features as a typical phone except they're more fun to use, a conversation piece and they fulfill an unrecognized need that multitudes have wanted but never stood up and demanded. At one time or another, almost everyone has been in a situation where they wanted to take a picture of something but did not have a camera at that very moment. Very few people would ever think of carrying a camera with them at all times, but at one time or another almost everyone has wished they had one. Now, they don't need to worry. The phone in their pocket is a camera as well!

Cellular phone makers don't see this as a gimmick either. While it is increasing the sales of new cellular phones, it is also adding new chargeable services to monthly bills. More importantly, they are changing behavior and increasing how users use their phone and the number of airtime minutes. Camera phones may well be the precursors to videophones or streaming audio/video via cellular service.

This is one of the key principles that Seth Godin laid out in his definition of a Purple Cow. Not only does a Purple Cow need to stand out from the pack, but it needs to deliver real value as well. While some of the marketing put forth by the camera phone makers is clearly very well done, more importantly, the product is well done too. The early adopters of these phones are continuing to utilize them in social settings and evangelizing their benefits to their friends, coworkers and family.

From a pervasive computing perspective, camera phones are a wonderful example of how and where pervasive computing is heading. Camera phones serve not only as an example of a Purple Cow, but also as a recipe for future pervasive computing innovations. There are four key themes of pervasive computing demonstrated by the success of camera phones:

Consumer Driven

Just as consumer spending has largely supported our economy over the past few years, it is consumers, not businesses that are fueling the pervasive computing wave. While businesses are performing a cautious analysis of the emerging technologies that make up pervasive computing, consumers are still jumping in headfirst.

Take a look at Tablet PC sales as an example. From a technology perspective, Tablet PCs are more innovative and potentially more revolutionary than the camera phone. Even the currently available 1.0 versions possess much of this potential. However, most corporations are taking a cautious approach to Tablet PCs. They're still too heavy or there's not enough application support are a few of the reasons given for the lack of adoption. Similar excuses could be given for camera phones: their resolution is poor and you can only store a few pictures in your phone. But for many consumers these issues just don't matter. It is more attitude than anything else. Businesses are taking a much more cautionary approach in adopting emerging technologies. While businesses may be looking for justifiable and quantifiable ROI before adopting any emerging technology, consumers are willing to gamble on innovations that offer only fun, enjoyment and ease of use.

Cool versus Needful

Logic is not the key driver in pushing consumer spending forward on pervasive computing devices. Yes, there is a line of reasoning one can use to try and justify a camera phone purchase. " What if I: witness a crime, get in a car accident, bump into my favorite movie star?" are some logical lines of reasoning (read excuses) that you can use to try and justify purchasing a camera phone. The truth is, camera phone owners typically do not take pictures of "needful things." They're on the phone with friends (three way calling of course): one girl is at the mall or some guys are in a bar and want to show their phone friends a good looking guy/gal, a cute blouse, to-die-for earrings, etc. Not needful – but cool. The phone is remarkable because it has a camera, but the true Purple Cow becomes the person who has a camera phone: they can do truly remarkable (not to be confused with needful) things.

Instant messaging (IM) tells a similar story. IM service providers are making digital gadgets to allow phone camera users to send their pics to friends via IM. A bunch of teenagers hanging out online with IM while using unlimited evening and weekend minutes on their cell phones start slinging around pics via phone and IM. Why? Because they can. Remarkable!


Camera phones are an unanticipated but excellent example of converging functionality. In the past, new functionality meant an entirely new device. Now, we're seeing existing functionality permeate through previously distinct functional devices. Not only do some new cell phones contain a camera, but virtually all possess increasingly sophisticated address books and calendars with functionality that is approaching the level currently within personal information managers (PIMs).

I recently gave up carrying my Pocket PC everywhere I go, because 90 percent of my Pocket PC use was for its address book. While my phone's visual user interface isn't nearly as nice as my Pocket PC, it does have a voice activation feature and I am no longer copying the number from one device to another in order to make a call. While my cell phone isn't a PDA and I'm not throwing out my Pocket PC any time soon, the feature- functionality line is getting increasingly fuzzy.

User Interface

For pervasive computing, even in this economy, "it's < U> not the economy, stupid," it's the user interface. The user interface of most camera phones, while small, offers a dramatic improvement over phones even a year or so old. Their color screens are crisp and much easier to read than the older black and while models and the navigation buttons and menuing software have leapt ahead of their predecessors in terms of intuitiveness and general usability. Size is a limiting factor, as the interface is primarily driven through visual reference and push button controls; but again, significant strides are being made.

For at least the short term, expect pervasive computing innovations to be driven largely by consumer demand. These innovations may seem incremental because on the surface they are not something that is entirely brand new. However, addressing current weaknesses in user-interface design and combining functionality that reduces the sheer array of gadgetry one needs to own are indeed innovations that consumers are looking for. Camera phones are indeed a Purple Cow for pervasive computing, but they are probably only one of a large herd of multi-hued cows headed our way.

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