Switched On: An 'i' for imaging

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

When the original iPhone was first launched, its camera ranked among its least competitive features. While the face of Apple's product broke ground for how it reacted to touch, its eye into the world was wanting. It could capture only two megapixels, lacked autofocus, a flash, or digital zoom, and had no support for video capture. It seemed as though Apple had somehow felt obliged to put in a camera, a feature the company would leave off the iPod touch and iPad. The 3GS bumped the resolution to three megapixels and added in video capture that even included trimming capabilities, but Apple's heart still didn't seem very into the iPhone as a digital imaging device.

That's changed with iPhone 4. While its five-megapixel camera lags behind the eight-megapixel cameras on devices such as the Droid Incredible and HTC EVO 4G in terms of raw resolution, and it includes just one LED flash bulb as opposed to two on the EVO 4G, Apple's inclusion of a backlit sensor has aided the product's low-light capture, and the included software makes use of the cameras in innovative ways.

But as is often the case with Apple, the hardware is only part of the story. iMovie and FaceTime show that Cupertino seeks to push the envelope of what can be done in real-time using the iPhone's cameras, as well as what can be done with video after it's been captured. Using iMovie for iPhone, one will be able to create a reasonably polished multimedia memento that wraps HD video, five-megapixel stills and a soundtrack in high-quality titles and transitions. You'll be able to finish the vacation video before the vacation is even over.

During his WWDC keynote, Steve Jobs said it took 18 months to develop iMovie for iPhone. That Apple is now lavishing attention on video functionality it practically ignored before shows that the iPhone is expanding far beyond the content consumption role -- a role many have been tempted to pigeonhole smartphones and slate devices in general. It also fans the flames of opinion that Apple is turning iOS into an eventual replacement for Mac OS. iMovie was the first of the iLife applications, and of course the iWork suite has already been ported to iOS. Apple's imaging moves also show some of the strength that Apple is building in its iCosystem. It would be trivial to create a version of iMovie optimized for the iPad, and getting videos from the iPhone to iPad is a simple exercise with the (currently rare) iPad camera connector. The next step is a simpler path to the television that may be facilitated by a future version of Apple TV.

Of course, these video vindications are currently limited to the iPhone. The next test of Apple's commitment to developing its handheld platforms into robust digital imaging devices will likely happen this fall as Apple refreshes the iPod touch. Many have long speculated that that device -- previously described as not needing "new stuff" by Jobs -- was destined to include a camera. But now the indications are stronger than ever that Apple will imbue its music player-turned-mobile platform into a carrier-free vehicle for bridging the space of face-to-face communications and the time between capturing video and editing it.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.