Sony's Wi-Fi Camera Play is More Half-Hearted Than Hail Mary

By Norman Chan

We've still yet to see a Wi-Fi equipped camera that is as good as Apple's PhotoStream or Google's Instant Upload.

It's no surprise that the point-and-shoot camera business isn't so hot, given the increasing popularity and capabilities of good-enough cameraphone alternatives. Sony, just one of the many camera makers affected by this trend, is at least honest about the state of this industry. In a meeting with the product managers of Sony's Cybershot division, I was informed that business was down 20% in 2011 in the US, with most of the decline coming from the entry-level camera market. More and more, users are choosing to put their money into smartphones with good cameras, or find that the point-and-shoots they already own are good enough and don't need replacing. Sony estimates that a typical user's camera upgrade cycle is now around 36 months instead of 24.

To salvage this business, Sony is focusing on features that aren't currently on smartphones--high optical zoom, CMOS sensors for better low light shots, fast auto-focus, and active image stabilization. The company also wants to adopt a feature that's inherently better on smartphones: wireless connectivity and syncing, like Apple's PhotoStream and Google+ Instant Upload. It's a no-brainer; I've long maintained that seamless cloud syncing is the next killer feature for dedicated cameras, and plenty of other camera companies are experimenting with wi-fi equipped models, with varying degrees of success (read: none have been smash hits.) Cloud syncing photos makes even more sense for Sony since it just launched its PlayMemories cloud ecosystem at CES.

The problem is that, like other attempts at Wi-Fi enabled cameras, Sony's big Wi-Fi camera play is both half-hearted and half-baked. Of the 12 Cybershot cameras Sony is launching this year, only one--the $420 HX30V--supports Wi-Fi, and the implementation is pretty terrible. It's neither automatic nor intuitive. Let me walk you through the process of wirelessly getting photos off this camera.

First, Wi-Fi on this camera doesn't mean you can easily pull photos off the camera to your desktop or laptop computer--you're still going to have to connect it directly over USB or remove the memory card for that. Wi-Fi on the HX30V is only for viewing and transferring images to mobile apps on smartphones and tablets. Seriously. So imagine you've just taken a photo with the HX30V, and want to share it online. Here's what you have to do.

  1. Turn the camera on and put it in playback mode with the hardware Play button.
  2. Press Menu and navigate to the Wi-Fi sub-menu to enable Wi-Fi Standby Mode.
  3. The Camera becomes a Wi-Fi Host, and displays an SSID and password. Connect to that network with your smartphone or tablet.
  4. Run the PlayMemories app you've previously downloaded in the app store (for both iOS and Android).
  5. Select the photo you want, and press an on-screen button to either copy it over in VGA or 2MP file options (even though the original photo is an 18MP image).
  6. Find the photo in the PlayMemories app or on your PlayMemories account online.

Contrast that with the process on the iPhone or with an Android phone, where I set up my Wi-Fi accounts once and photos are automatically uploaded to PhotoStream or Google+ when the device is connected to Wi-Fi. One system adds more complexity to a task, the other removes it.

Smartphones obviously have an advantage over cameras because they're always-connected devices first, cameras second. Connectivity demands a persistent drain on battery and requires a troublesome setup process on non-touchscreen devices. But it's not an impossible challenge.

I really want to see a good implementation of wireless photo syncing on a dedicated camera, whether it's a point-and-shoot, mirrorless interchangeable lens, or DSLR. The technical hurdles on both the hardware and software side aren't easy to overcome; camera makers need to come up with a system that photographers find more than just usable, but also invisible to workflows as well. That means taking big risks and making big investments. But if done well, shoppers will reward them for it.