Nikon S52c Still Limits Transfers over Wi-Fi

Nikon announced the Wi-Fi-enabled Coolpix S52c this week, and while it's the latest and greatest consumer-grade camera with embedded wireless networking--9 megapixels, 3x optical zoom, and image stabilization for $299 in June--the company still hasn't overcome the fundamental problem with embedded Wi-Fi. The camera makers feel the need to downsample us and lock us in.

A device with Wi-Fi inside can connect to a network access point, and through that point, get onto the Internet. Camera makers apparently have a problem with this. Despite consumer models dating back to 2005 from Canon (the stale PowerShot SD340), Kodak, and Nikon, we're expected to connect with the camera either to software running under Windows or Mac OS X on a local network, or to picture services operate by the camera makers. (Extremely expensive Wi-Fi cameras can connect wherever they like, because they're purchased by media firms and sports photographers who would laugh at a walled garden.)

The Nikon S52c, for instance, "emails" photos from hot spots through which it can connect to Nikon's My Picturetown site, which offers 2 GB of free storage, and charges $2.99 per month starting in May for 20 GB of storage. But "email" is a misnomer for these cameras: it's really, "Attach an email address to a picture, and then we upload it to our service in lower-resolution form, and email a message on your behalf."

Camera makers don't like to mention that they downsample these images; I always have to ask a company rep at a trade show or in a briefing, or dig through layers of technical specifications, to discover what resolution "emailed" photos are sent at. The higher levels of compression are typically not mentioned, either.

To download the highest resolution images, you either connect the camera via USB to a computer, pull out its memory card and plug it into a PC-based card reader, or, transfer images over a local Wi-Fi network to some host software that runs on a computer.

Ostensibly, the camera makers are trying to protect battery life, and reduce your frustration with long uploads. But shouldn't that be my choice, even if it's hidden away in a settings menu I can access if I know enough to care? (All cellphone camera software does the same thing with even less disclosure, by the way. In testing a T-Mobile-branded converged cell/Wi-Fi phone, I was told that I couldn't get the full-resolution pictures off the phone without a special, separately sold USB cable.)

Nikon did take a significant step outside the walled garden approach by allowing My Picturetown images to be transferred directly to Flickr, a Yahoo-owned photo-sharing and -storage service. And they moved slightly away from downsampling by offering the option to upload images without a host computer program if you plug in an AC adapter to the camera. These are small measures.

An alternative that emerged last year is the Eye-Fi Card, a $100 Secure Digital (SD) card with 2 GB of storage, a Wi-Fi radio, and a tiny computer. The Eye-Fi is configured via a computer (Mac OS X or Windows XP/Vista), and then inserted into any camera that handles SD cards. As pictures are taken, the Eye-Fi transfers them automatically and independently as long as a Wi-Fi network it's configured to access is in the vicinity. Bring home a camera with an Eye-Fi card, power the camera up, and pictures start flowing.

The Eye-Fi isn't integrated with cameras yet, but that's coming. They signed a deal with memory-card maker Lexar to embed their technology, and their card works with the Nikon D60's firmware to handle power settings correctly. (The Eye-Fi only works when there's power to a camera, so you have to set a camera to not power down automatically; when integrated with a camera's firmware, the Eye-Fi could tell the camera when it's done.)

Eye-Fi still requires a manner of walled garden, though it's more porous than the camera makers. Images are uploaded via the Internet to Eye-Fi's servers, which then transfer them to the photo service of your choice. They're sent at full resolution to Eye-Fi's servers which downsample to the requirements of particular services, if that's needed.

What would be ideal in a future Wi-Fi camera is an advanced transfer menu that would enable direct connections via FTP (especially Secure FTP) for people who just want mass transfers; and have regularly updated firmware--updated over Wi-Fi perhaps?--that would let you drop your pictures right into photo galleries of your choice.

Until then, camera makers are restricting their market by restricting choices. With dozens of competing photo services, lock in makes abundantly little sense.

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