After 15 years of covering technology, I've become more than a bit jaded about the latest whiz-bang products. So it came as a surprise and pleasure to be bowled over by a new gadget du jour, the Nokia 7650 camera phone. Naturally, this sleek handset lets you talk and send text messages. But it also takes decent snapshots that you can send wirelessly--with an attached sound clip, if you wish--to other phones and e-mail addresses. Moreover, it plays music files, supports downloadable ring tones and tiny applications, and comes with built-in infrared and Bluetooth technology for communicating with other phones and PCs.
I can't recall when I've had so much fun trying out a product. Far from the usual frustrations I experience with cutting-edge technologies, I found the 7650 incredibly easy to use. Most important, as with other well-designed consumer electronics, I grasped immediately what it is best suited for. Only minutes after sauntering into Central London with the phone eagerly clutched in my hand, I had dispatched a recorded message to a friend: "Here I am in Trafalgar Square," linked to a photo of myself standing below a bronze lion guarding the base of Admiral Nelson's column.
Alas, my enthusiasm for Nokia's newest gizmo isn't universally shared. While companies are racing to bring out camera phones, many analysts remain skeptical of the potential. Not without reason: The 7650 costs over $750--about the same as a cheap PC--and could still run $500 even after subsidies from operators. Nor can anyone predict whether this will be merely a fad that passes once the novelty wears off. In Japan, nearly half of all new phones sold already contain cameras, but many customers don't appear to be using the feature.
Such concerns aren't stopping Nokia (NOK ), which is banking on imaging to fuel sales. Carriers, too, are hoping for a boost from multimedia messages, which will be priced at about 30 cents each, vs. 10 cents for a text message. The first to roll out multimedia support in Britain was Deutsche Telekom's (DT ) T-Mobile unit. By this fall, other European and U.S. carriers will have multimedia support, and picture phones from Nokia and rivals are expected to be hot items at Christmas.
Nokia has raised the bar with the 7650. With a color screen and graphical interface, the 5.4 oz (154 gram) device fits in a pocket and feels solidly built. When closed, it's a bit thicker and wider than most contemporary handsets. To take a photo, you slide open a recessed keypad to expose a lens on the phone's backside, then frame the shot on the screen and press a shutter. With 3.6 MB of memory, the 7650 can hold dozens of pictures (the number depends on their resolution), plus hundreds of contact names and calendar entries. If you don't want to send off the pix right away, it's a snap to beam them to your PC later.
What if your desired recipient doesn't have a multimedia-capable phone, or has none at all? Nokia was careful not to exclude such folks. Pictures can be sent to any e-mail address. Owners of older phones get a text message directing them to a Web site where, with a supplied I.D. and password, they see and hear for free what you sent. On T-Mobile's service, this worked flawlessly. Using the 7650 was the closest I've ever felt to experiencing the true potential of the wireless Web.
It's important to note that the 7650 isn't meant to take the place of a real camera. It has a fixed focal-length lens, no flash, and a top resolution of 640 by 480 pixels--about one-tenth the density of high-end cameras. Such limitations again raise the question of how many people will buy these phones. Nokia says that misses the point: Although cam-phones are still a novelty, they will someday spawn a way of communicating that's different from either photography or talking over the phone.
Maybe my enthusiasm is just that of a born-again geek, but I'm inclined to agree. The Nokia 7650 won't be the final word in camera-phones, but it will help usher in an era when mobile imaging is a part of daily life.