Why doesn’t the average digital camera automatically upload to Picasa, Flickr, or similar?

We’re getting into roughly the 15th year of Internet digital photo sharing. Back when I was teaching one-day courses in Internet applications to broad audiences, e.g., in 1999, folks would ask me “What will cameras look like in the future?” I confidently predicted that the typical point and shoot camera would have an 802.11 transceiver and, whenever it came within range of a wireless network, would upload all of the recently captured images to an Internet photo sharing site.

It looks as though this prediction has been dead wrong, but I can’t figure out why. I still think it would be useful for the average photographer to have a camera that trickled all of the pictures up to Picasa, Flickr, or similar. Can this even be purchased? http://www.eye.fi/ seems to do most of what I envisioned, but it isn’t part of the camera itself.  The latest Canon and Nikon compact digital cameras don’t offer this capability, though they can cost over $300 and you’d think the cost of a WiFi radio would be negligible.

Why would the average consumer want to monkey with USB cables, memory cards, etc. in order to get the photos up to where they can be viewed by friends and family?

31 thoughts on “Why doesn’t the average digital camera automatically upload to Picasa, Flickr, or similar?

  1. Especially when their phones are already doing this.

    Cell phones may have sucky cameras but think Hipstamatic, Colors, Instagram, … Clearly people (including artists and photographers) are satisfied with sucky cameras.

    So you would think that just to compete with phones on basic features, to keep phones from completely destroying the point and shoot market, that they would have wifi capabilities.

  2. HP had something called InstantShare, but their camera weren’t wifi
    enabled, so i guess they dont get a cigar either.

    Good question. It seems obvious

  3. I don’t know about you, but I only have about 1 in 10 photographs of those I take that I’d actually want to show to the world. Even if they were initially uploaded to a private area and then Flickr or what have you allowed me to pick the ones to make public, I wouldn’t want to waste the time at my woeful upload bandwidth to upload them all only to then publish 10%. Additionally, all this uploading is likely to seriously eat into my battery life.

    Those are the handful of technical reasons I can think of off the top of my head. On top of that, there’s too much room for embarrassment if my camera is going to be publishing every photo it takes immediately. 😉

  4. Maybe it’s simply that wi-fi networks have turned out to be too much of a fiddle for the average consumer? Even open ones often insist on users registering before allowing access. For camera manufacturers, that means providing a means of keying in those details. Cameras would need to evolve phone-quality touch screens before that would even be possible.

  5. Scenario: you are walking around Italy and take the world best ever photo of your significant other holding up some tower in Pisa and it just has to be seen to be believed by your friends.

    So you go to a cafe that has wifi. You turn on wifi to upload, connect to the unprotected hotspot and … nothing. Turns out any URL the camera tries to access goes to some page where you can log in with your account or press the “guest button” and be limited to a slow speed and only port 80 and 443 open.

    How are you going to get past that on a 2″ screen and just a small number of buttons?

    Even at home it will be a pain to slowly key in the password to your protected access point.

    So I believe the average consumer would love Wifi in their cameras – if it was actually practical.

    The future should be Bluetooth in your camera, paired with your 3g/4g cell phone for network connectivity. That way it just works, with the minor downside of being charged $1500 per kilobyte because you are still in Italy and roaming, of course!

  6. David, Bas: I didn’t say that the phone would need to be able to use every WiFi network out there, just enough of them to get the photos uploaded. If that means you need to wait until you find an open network or get to home or work, that would still be a lot more convenient than the current system of cables and cards.

  7. There would have to be some way of picking the site to upload to. Seems like the camera companies might be at risk of stuff changing or their customers complaining the company is “forcing” them to use whatever random websites they choose to support. How much room is there to add these features to $300 camera computer anyway?

    Why can’t I play “angry birds” on my camera?

  8. njkayaker: Regarding the issue of which photo sharing services would be supported… digital compact cameras are commodities. So it would make a lot of sense for Flickr or Picasa to sell you their own branded cameras that included a premium subscription for three years or whatever. They could contract with Casio or Ricoh, et al., to make the physical camera.

  9. By the way, eye-fi works pretty well, and I believe some models (the explore, and pro) have enough know how and corporate licensing to be able to recognize various commercial wifi access points and register, but my complaint is that the storage is limited and the functionality should be in the camera. @Dave, if you’re willing to buy an eye-fi card, they claim there is an eye-fi app you can install on your iPhone… Huh? http://www.eye.fi/products/iphone

    On the other hand, near as I can tell, all of those dns hi-jacking wifi access pages violate TCP/IP standards. They wreak havoc on my Nexus since my nexus connects to them and doesn’t bother to see if there really is any connectivity through them.

    I would like to think there is some standard coming down the pike somewhere to fix that problem….

  10. Also, people say that the majority of their pictures aren’t worth publishing, I agree. Obviously. So there would need to be an intermediate stage where you select the ones to keep and the ones to throw away. We do that now, with wholly inadequate tools on the phones or cameras. And hooking up a cable or swapping out a little disk is incredibly tedious. Much better to do this with a desktop computer on a web service over wifi.

    Phil, I have a prediction to make — there will be such a camera, and it will have a new brand on it — probably Facebook or possibly Twitter.


    I have no doubt that Facebook understands this opportunity. Not so sure about Twitter these days.

  11. Dave: I think that there is already an intermediate stage on Flickr and Picasa. Not every folder is “shared with the world”. Basically you would have a folder called “latest photos” or perhaps a folder of photos for each month and those would be private. Then once you got to a Web browser you could drag the best images to a public or shared folder. Certainly no new programming would be required at the photo sharing sites.

    I guess you might want to have a target folder or public/private control on the camera itself for those individuals who wanted to have every image be publicly accessible as quickly as possible. But we’re talking about a day or two of programming here, which doesn’t explain why the product isn’t available.

  12. You’re right — it’s so funny that our politics are 180 degrees opposite, but we think about products almost exactly the same way.

    I think the reason Apple hasn’t made the iPhone work this smoothly is that they must have a product lurking in the labs getting ready to announce, and they don’t want the iPhone to interfere with it.

    The camera companies don’t have it because they don’t love photography. I’m sure some people in the companies do, but they’re losing the political battles with people who think there are two types of camera users, and the people they make cameras for love the hassle of sorting through cables and other misc hardware.

    The same way people who love snuggling up with a book will never buy a Kindle. 🙂

  13. Picasa dumps photos you email to them into a private album called “Dropbox” (not affiliated with that other Dropbox.)

    Most of my cheapo cameras already have a “DPOF” button which lets me mark a photo for printing later on. It could easily be the same thing as upload now/later.

    (Related use: I purchased several Panasonic IP Cams in the BL-C210A family. When their various motion detection / heat sensors are set off, they take their pictures and then email them to a gmail account that syncs with my phone and also emails them to a Picasa account where they go into that dropbox private folder.)

  14. Camera makers have proven time after time that they are rigorously incapable of writing software that doesn’t suck. Nikon has some WiFi-enabled camera, but they will only talk with Nikon’s god-awful PictureProject software running on a PC, not directly with web services. Canon’s WFT WiFi transmitters have the good sense to run an embedded FTP server, but that’s pull. not push.

    The single easiest solution seems to be the Eye-Fi WiFi memory cards, and they designed their system to automatically upload where you want. In other words, use the SD interface to do an end-run around abysmally stupid camera maker firmware.

  15. Along the same lines, I’ve been wondering why geo-tagging has been so slow to arrive to consumer cameras. I recently bought a Sony with GPS, but decided I couldn’t wait 60 seconds for a GPS lock every time I turned it on. The iPhone seems to get around this by quickly guessing a location using the known location of seen wifis, until it gets a GPS lock.

  16. My Windows Phone automatically copies all its photos and video to its “host” pc on my local network, which it’s sitting idle and charging (from a wall outlet). This is done over WiFi, by the way.

    I imagine there are utilities out there that could watch the PC’s destination folder and copy the images into Flickr, Dropbox, Picasa, etc.?

  17. Fazal hit the nail on the head with his opening sentence. We’ve (we being ZooFoo.com) been working on the problem of “is it possible to build an Internet photo loader that actually works” from a PC or Mac. We figured this would have been solved 5-6 years ago. But the major brands (who are focused on hardware) will distribute software that can move photos to a server if everything is perfect, if the user has a masters degree in sys admin, and if the sun aligns perfectly with with various Mayan ruins during the upload. Otherwise something fails.

    Ordinary users (and we’ve watched hundreds) hit a “special case” a high % of the time they try something like this. The bandwidth is too low for the size photo they are trying to move, or they are including a tiny image which breaks the server api, or (and this is common) the transmission software has no way to self-heal when the connection breaks. So they get discouraged and give up and leave the photos on the camera.

    For example, we recently thought “well, this next version of Kodak Gallery for Windows” may address some of these issues. After 20 minutes of waiting while our test PC ground away trying to do the upgrade we changed our mind. (update takes our Loader – http://www.zoofoo.com/window – about 6 seconds, so we’re not exactly sure what they are doing). Based on this I think they are a long way from embedded systems.

    Just trying to get the cameras to communicate with the standard Windows or Mac auto-play functions is non-trivial, as the hardware makers haven’t followed the OS specs closely. I realize you are saying a closed system would mitigate this, and it probably would. But as Fazal said, I’m just not sure hardware makers are there today, esp in a case of embedded system -> Internet -> Server.

  18. It’s not possible to overemphasize Fazal’s point about camera makers and software. The perfect example is the committee that designed the Exif standard. The Exif standard is an utterly pathetic work that only dreams of being good enough to be labeled “designed by committee”. For example, it offers no way to encode when the photo was taken: It allows a date and time, but no timezone, so you can’t pin down the exact moment in time (you can’t produce a Unixtime without outside knowledge, for example).

    I once asked a member of the committee why on earth the timezone wasn’t there, and he replied “why would you want the timezone?”. Sigh.

    In the case of your post, I’m more in njkayaker’s camp (“Why can’t I play Angry Birds on my camera?”), but if they were to try to implement auto-sharing, I can only imagine the horror of how they’d end up doing it…. )-:

  19. I think that the comment about there being an Android app to do this highlights that it is possible, it’s just that the camera makers haven’t moved their thinking much towards combined devices and services (mp3/camera/phone/cloud storage).

    A camera needs a SIM card to upload data out of the house. Monthly contracts usually max out at about 500MB per month here in the UK (my modest 8M pixel camera takes 3.7MB images, so I could manage about 135 shots in a month). That’s not quite enough for my enthusiastic months.

    In the house, using Wi-Fi, at 256mbps upload, by my calculations it would take about 5.5hours to upload that 500MB of images, which might strain the battery somewhat.

    I think the simplest way for camera manufacturers to approach this would be to offer Wi-Fi upload when the camera is charging.

    Then there’s always the question of whether users would trust ‘cloud storage’ with their images.

  20. Michael: Verizon FiOS here in the U.S. provides 5 Mbps upload as part of its cheapest tier and 25 Mbps for the next tier of service. The cable TV services are increasingly offering 1 or 2 Mbps. A casual picture taker is not going to create 500 MB of images on a typical day. So a daily upload time of a few minutes is more likely than 5.5 hours.

  21. Maybe someone has a patent on the idea and is sitting on it until someone shows up with a suitcase filled with hundred dollar bills. 🙂

  22. Good lord, have you seen the steaming piles of crappy interfaces and crashy nonsense that they ship for free with cameras? Like, we are well into the Windows XP-Vista era and someone ships you a MS WINDOWS 3.1 app sort of bad.

    It is not possible, in the slightest, for camera manufacturers to make an intelligent, usable UI. They revel in the obtuse: focus rings are for real men and if you want to do trap focus on a pentax you can just take a flying leap! P’s and M’s and focus depth compensation and JESUS JUST FOCUS ON THAT THING AND GIVE ME SOME DEPTH OF FIELD ALREADY.

    Eye-fi is as good as it gets.

  23. another option is a cdma chip in the camera–no need for a network connection at all as long as one can find a cell signal. i’ve expected this in a high-end camera for quite a while as making the system work is also an easily solvable engineering problem and competing on price doesn’t seem to be a priority in the sector.

  24. Kodak (yes, Kodak!) had a decent dual-lens camera with Bluetooth transfer capability, the V610, in 2006. It wasn’t the best camera ever invented, but it wasn’t a crappy Polaroid p/s, either. The consumer marketplace yawned. If you’re too busy to pop the SD card from a camera into your computer, you probably need to quit playing “Angry Birds.”

  25. Another thing missing from average digital camera is gps coordinate. Why can’t the camera automatically know where I took the pictures?

  26. Personally I’m thankful that most camera do not offer this. There are a a few technical difficulties that are (at this moment in time) difficult to get past.

    1. Battery Life. 802.11/GSM/CDMA radios all consume power. Most photographers would rather use their limited power taking photographs, rather than spending their limited time charging batteries. Sure would suck to go to take that perfect photo (or any photo) and find you had a dead battery because you forgot to turn off the radio.

    2. Public sharing sites chage. Each photo sharing site changes their access protocols (APIs) from time to time. Some simply stop supporting the older API, some support older APIs for a limited time. So when this happens, you’ve bought camera X over camera Y just for this sharing feature.. suddenly the API changes, or worse, the sharing service closes shop.. and the feature you just paid extra for is no longer functioning. There’s gonna be some pretty upset people out there.

    Until, at a minimum, both those issues are resolved I wouldn’t ever purchase a feature with an internet sharing feature.

  27. Per David Pogue, the Flip was about to release a Wi-Fi connected video camera:


    “…That new Flip that the product manager showed me was astonishing. It was called FlipLive, and it added one powerful new feature to the standard Flip: live broadcasting to the Internet.

    That is, when you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot, the entire world can see what you’re filming. You can post a link to Twitter or Facebook, or send an e-mail link to friends. Anyone who clicks the link can see what you’re seeing, in real time – thousands of people at once.

    Think how amazing that would be. The world could tune in, live, to join you in watching concerts. Shuttle launches. The plane in the Hudson. College lectures. Apple keynote speeches.

    Or your relatives could join you for smaller, more personal events: weddings, birthday parties, graduations, first steps.

    And the FlipLive was supposed to ship on April 13. The day after Cisco killed the Flip.”

  28. I wrote a python script with http://code.google.com/p/android-scripting/ and upload my photos and videos to my Home Server.

    My phone detects when it’s plugged in and at home using http://www.twofortyfouram.com/ locale, the best $10 I ever spent. (Locale also turns my ringer to vibrate at work and some other cool stuff).

    The only pictures I take are of my son at play/events, etc. So I take a bunch of photos, and email the best one out to family. (Sometimes on the phone, sometimes after I’ve reviewed them).

    I looked for a camera with wifi, they were only available for a short time in 2005 or so IIRC.

    So even though my android camera quality is lackluster …it’s what I use. After all, I have it on me all the time

    The problem with camera over wifi to site:
    For the common man (non computer scientist) – setting up a router is a challenge. Between the broken English in the manual the 1997 era configuration web page and byzantine and bizarre setup options, I’m amazed most home networks work at all.

    For the cameras, the same people who designed those terrible router config pages also findd work designing camera interfaces. Tiny buttons close together, the ability to disable your camera with an errant touch of the figure, etc. I can’t imagine the masochist that would want to type their site password on camera. (It’s bad enough on a phone with a keyboard).

    The best bet would be to use 3g (4g) uploading right to the site. But then you’re back to a phone or tablet.

  29. Phil, nice article and lots of great comments.

    You may be interested in checking out Eye-Fi’s just released Direct Mode feature: http://www.eye.fi/blog/new-eye-fi-mobile-x2-and-instant-uploads

    Eye-Fi X2 cards will (this week) be able to transfer photos & videos directly from the Eye-Fi Card in your camera to your smartphone, tablet or laptop wherever you are. The Eye-Fi Card creates a Wi-Fi network that your device joins, so this solution works anywhere.

    If you want only selected items to be posted online (we work with over 45 online sites), use the lock/protect feature to mark them after you put the card into “Selective Transfer” mode.

    If you already have an Eye-Fi card and an Android device, check out the Eye-Fi app that can receive photos from your Eye-Fi X2 card, and also send photos & videos that you take on your Android back to your computer.

    We hope you enjoy the Eye-Fi cards in your favorite SDHC camera.


    Randhir (Eye-Fi)

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