Oh, snap: follow the evolution of the camera phone into compact-killer greatness

This is how far the camera on your smartphone has come

If you told someone in 2001 that 15 years later the most popular camera will actually be a phone, you’d probably be laughed at. Don’t believe us? Read the comments on this BBC report about the first camera phone.

Today, it seems people just cannot live without a camera on their phone. Just look at Instagram’s stats – more than 40 million active users monthly, sharing more than 40 billion photos on the smartphone app alone. 

But have you ever wondered how phones and cameras became practically synonymous? We take you back in time and explore the evolution of the smartphone camera.  

1997 – First picture to be taken with a mobile phone

Taking pictures on a phone would only have been a distant dream, if not for Philippe Kahn. In 1997, the technology innovator and entrepreneur fitted a camera into a Motorola Startac, and proceeded to be the first person to take a photograph – of his newborn baby daughter Sophie - using a mobile phone camera. The photo was instantly shared to his friends and family with his own wireless sharing software. This would become the blueprint for social media today. 

1999-2000 – First commercial camera phone

Opinions are divided as to which camera phone was the first available to the public. The consensus was that the Sharp J-SH04 from J-Phone (now SoftBank Mobile Japan) was the world’s first camera phone. Released in November 2000, it had a 0.11-megapixel sensor and a colour display. It was also the first phone to send photos via Sha-Mail, the Japanese equivalent of MMS and developed in collaboration with Phillippe Kahn.

One other contender to the throne was the Samsung SCH-V200 released in June 2000. It had a 0.35-megapixel camera, but the camera function was not integrated with the phone; that is, the camera merely shared the same body. You had to transfer the images to a computer in order to view them.

The Kyocera VP-210 Visual Phone was another challenger that was released in May 1999. It had a 0.11-megapixel front-facing camera that could snap stills and transfer images via e-mail. However, the VP-210 was sold as a videophone, rather than a phone with a digital camera. 

2002 – Camera phones hit the mainstream

It was not until 2002’s Nokia 7650 that camera phones became popular with the public. A step up over the 0.3-megapixel camera from Sharp, it was heavily promoted and was even featured in the film Minority Report. Manufacturers finally had a hook that could get people to buy a new mobile phone. 

2003 – First autofocus-equipped camera phone

The 1.28-megapixel camera on the Mova P505iS by NTT DoCoMo is the first to be equipped with autofocus. Released back in November 2003, the Panasonic-designed flip phone had Mova functionality – featuring high-resolution facial capture technology.

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