Mobility

The myriad business uses for smartphone cameras

Smartphone cameras are no longer just for the consumer market -- the cameras can also be useful business tools. Deb Shinder lists good business reasons to have a camera on your phone.

Smartphone cameras are no longer just for the consumer market — the cameras can also be useful business tools. Deb Shinder lists good business reasons to have a camera on your phone.

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The first smartphones — the Nokia Communicator, the Pocket PC-based phones, early Palms and BlackBerries — didn't have cameras. Even after the camera feature became common on "feature phones" marketed to consumers, most of the more sophisticated smartphones didn't come with it. That's because the smartphone market catered mostly to business users, and cameras were not seen as a necessary or even desirable component for business use.

In fact, some IT pros considered the feature a reason not to buy a particular phone model because many security-conscious businesses prohibited bringing cameras on the premises, and lots of events banned cameras. At my first MVP Summit in 2004, people who had phones with cameras were required to leave the devices outside the auditorium during Steve Ballmer's keynote speech, lest they snap a picture of the slideshow that contained non-disclosure agreement (NDA) information.

Modern camera phones

Today things are different. The iPhone introduced smartphones to the consumer market, and now almost every phone has a camera. At the most recent MVP Summits, attendees were freely photographing the keynote speakers, who apparently have adapted to the change by omitting NDA material from their slides and/or trusting MVPs not to divulge it.

Like it or not, cameras on phones are here to stay. The good news is the cameras are getting better. Resolution is getting higher, with 8 megapixel phones common. Lenses are higher quality. Flash is built into many phones. Some phones even have two cameras — a back-facing camera for regular photography and a front-facing camera for video conferencing. We're not yet at the point where the phone can replace the digital SLR for serious photography, but many smartphone cameras can take the place of low end point-and-shoot cameras and even inexpensive camcorders (Figure A). Figure A

The camera built into the Omnia II phone (center) can often take the place of the small Flip camcorder (left), the compact Casio camera (right), and even the Nikon Coolpix (top).

One major advantage of having your camera built into your phone is that it's always with you (well, as long as you're carrying your phone); no more missing that great photo opportunity because you didn't bring a camera along.

Business advantages

Business users have discovered that the camera can, in many instances, be useful as a business tool, as well. In addition to the aforementioned video conferencing with front-facing cameras, here are other good business reasons to have a camera on your phone:

  • You can use your smartphone camera as a mini copy machine to capture the information on a printed or a handwritten page. Some phone cameras, such as the one on the Omnia/Omnia II, include a Text mode setting to make it easier for you to photograph documents (Figure B).
Figure B

Some smartphone cameras include a Text shooting mode for photographing documents.
  • Some phones, such as the original Omnia, come with extra camera-related software preinstalled. The Omnia included a business card reader called Smart Reader; when you photograph a card, the software extracts the information and puts it in your Contacts phonebook (this works best with cards that have a plain white background). It's basically an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program that converts images to text. There are OCR apps for the iPhone (OcrtoolPro, Snabiz) available in the App Store, and at least one OCR app (Alchemy Clip) for Android phones.
  • You can use your phone's camera to take a photo of a whiteboard/charts/etc. during meetings or presentations. (Be sure to get permission since sometimes they include confidential company information.)
  • If you're in the field, you can take pictures of items relevant to the job and email them back to the office. This can be much more efficient than trying to describe something to a colleague over the phone.
  • It's embarrassing when you aren't able to put names with the faces of those with whom you do business. When you meet them, take pictures of business colleagues (with their permission, of course) and add them to the Contacts entry for each person. Most phones make this easy to do, and if you use Exchange/Outlook, the pictures will be available to your desktop Contacts list after you sync your phone.
  • Photos can help you remember dates, because the photo file is time stamped. Taking pictures at events, meetings, etc. can serve as a quick way to find out, weeks or months later, exactly when that meeting took place.

Other situations when it's useful to have a camera phone:

  • When comparison shopping for computers and other big ticket items, I'll snap photos of the tags showing model number, price, and specs to help me keep that information straight later.
  • I sometimes use my phone's camera to quickly document my vehicle's location in large, complex parking spaces such as airport garages. This is especially handy if you're using a rental car that you might not easily recognize as yours.
  • Photographically document the scene if you're involved in an auto accident or some other incident that could result in a civil or criminal investigation.
  • The phone camera can be used as a security device. Take pictures of suspicious persons or activities. If you're really cautious, you can photograph the license plate and cab number before you get into a taxi and email it to someone else in case something happens.

Smile, you're on candid smartphone

Be careful, though, and don't get "snap happy" just because you have a camera that's always available. Some people don't like having their pictures taken and, if they're doing nothing wrong, they have the right to privacy. Although it is generally not against the law in the United States to take photos of people without their permission when they're in a public place (with certain exceptions covered by voyeurism statutes when those persons are in a state of undress in a public locker room, etc.), you should use common sense. If you see "No photography" signs posted, keep the camera phone in your pocket.

In the United States, photography in some locations is prohibited under national security regulations, and taking pictures on private property generally requires permission from the owner. In addition, if you use a picture for commercial purposes, you must get the consent of the people in the photo (or parents of children in the photo) and the owner of any recognizable location or building.

Shopping tips

Read my Smartphones column, Smartphone camera shopping tips, in which I outline the features to look for when you're shopping for a smartphone camera and reveal the phones that are regarded as having the best cameras.

Take the TechRepublic camera phone challenge

TechRepublic recently launched its first of many camera phone challenges. The current challenge is to submit an original camera phone beach photo by Friday, August 13, 2010 at 5:00 PM EDT. The winning entry will receive TechRepublic swag. Keep your eyes open for other TechRepublic camera phone challenges in the future.

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About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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