A few days ago, Amit Gupta wrote an interesting piece in his blog: Goodbye Point & Shoots, Goodbye Laptops. Amit summarises his point in a picture:
In short, according to Gupta, point & shoot cameras and laptop computers both stand in a sort of middle ground that’s destined to disappear, as users in both photography and computing areas will choose either ‘professional’ tools (DSLRs, desktop workstations) or consumer, more portable, good-enough tools (smartphones, tablet devices).
Although I think he has a point, and shoots it thought-provokingly (couldn’t resist the pun, have mercy), the question is slightly more complicated than that, in my opinion.
The camera side
Gupta writes (the emphasis is his):
It took a while, but the cameraphone has slowly, quietly, and almost completely replaced the point and shoot for many people. Cameraphones are simpler, more convenient (smaller) and, for 99% of situations, they are good enough.
The link he provides refers to an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times in August 2009 that shows a graph of the most popular cameras used on Flickr; in that graph you can see that Apple’s iPhone surpasses in usage more sophisticated DSLRs like the Canon EOS Digital Rebel series, the Canon EOS 40D and the Nikon D80. This statistics, however, is inconclusive on many levels. First, as the article itself notes, the [Canon] Rebel’s dethroning doesn’t seem to indicate a major consumer shift away from professional-quality cameras. Rather, it’s more of a shift in the battle among cellphone cameras, in favor of the iPhone, as well as a change in how people share digital photos. Secondly, the statistics is heavily influenced by the sheer quantity of photos uploaded to Flickr. And it’s much easier to upload photos directly from the iPhone than any other camera, point & shoot or DSLR (or film cameras, lest we forgot about them).
I agree with Gupta on the cameraphones being simpler and more convenient. The new-fangled adage that the best camera is the one you have with you really applies to those smartphones with decent-enough cameras. The main advantage is the convergence. With a smartphone like the iPhone, you carry around a multi-purpose portable device: you need it for email, web browsing, music, text messages and phone calls. This handiness is hardly beatable by a point & shoot camera.
At the same time I can’t help but notice that a point & shoot camera is more comfortable to handle than a phone, especially the iPhone. Point & shoots generally have a better grip and are better designed to fit in the hand rather nicely despite their small size. They have a set of nice in-camera features. Better lenses. Some of them do high-quality macros. For many people cameraphones are probably good enough because, for them, convenience is a higher priority than quality and versatility. I shoot a lot with my iPhone when I’m out and have no other camera with me because I want or need to move around without carrying around a slew of electronic gadgets. But as soon as I have to carry a small backpack or a ‘man bag’, I grab my trusty Nikon Coolpix 7600.
In my opinion, the truly doomed is a specific subcategory of the point & shoot cameras, the compact and ultracompact ones. Smartphones are undermining this category because they’re basically equal in mass but more convenient because they serve more than one purpose. On the other hand, there are bigger and more sophisticated point & shoot cameras — sometimes called ‘pseudo-DSLRs’ or ‘SLR like’ due to their similarity in shape — like the Nikon Coolpix L110 or the Coolpix P90 or the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS, which ironically are considered ‘good enough’ for many users who still feel intimidated by DSLR cameras or do not need their pro features.
The computer side
I find the decline of laptops as envisaged by Gupta to be less convincing than what may happen in the camera world with point & shoots. In my experience as a Mac consultant I have noticed an interesting trend these recent years: more people abandoning desktop computers in favour of more portable solutions. More users, even power users, have shifted to a MacBook Pro so that they can use it on the go, and in a desktop setup at home (attached to an external monitor and to a wireless keyboard and mouse). And again, for many users a MacBook Pro (13, 15, or 17-inch) is definitely good enough and powerful enough. Often it’s the only computer they have at home.
I’m sure the iPad, in the medium to long run, will likely replace the laptop; future generations of iPad will be lighter, more powerful and even more versatile. But — looking again at the picture proposed by Gupta — I don’t think that laptops will go away. As they get more and more powerful, they’ll probably replace desktop computers in many homes. Desktops will become the niche machines, aimed at those professionals who need high-end, expandable workhorses. The consumer and semi-pro market will continue favouring ultraportable (tablet computers) and portable (laptops) machines.