Dialing up memories

Monday, January 19, 2004

When Russell Booker heads back to his job on the river Jan. 28, daily pictures of his beautiful month-old daughter Aryana will only be as far away as his cell phone.

That's because three weeks ago, the Cape Girardeau resident and his wife Summer bought two new cell phones that come equipped with digital cameras, joining the increasing number of people who want to be able to take -- and send -- digital photos from their cell phones.

"We really like these phones," Summer Booker said last week. "We've had many different brands of phone, and none have been as good as these."

Summer plans to take "tons" of pictures with her cell phone and zip them off to Russell via the phones, which cost $149 apiece.

"He's gone a month at a time," Summer said. "This way, he won't feel like he's missing anything. We also have family that lives far away, and we can send pictures straight to their computers. It's great."

And some criticisms that the photos are blotchy or grainy couldn't be further from the truth, she said.

"They look excellent," she said. "The pictures come out perfect. The resolution is very good."

Thousands of people apparently agree with the Bookers. Tens of millions of these pictures were snapped and e-mailed from cell phones in the United States in 2003, the first full year such services were available.

"They seem to be really popular among kids, teenagers especially," said Maria Childress, a manager at JSC/Tel-Link in Cape Girardeau. "Teenagers love the new technology, and the camera phone is the newest technology on the market."

She said that teenagers come in already knowing how to work them, and they've sold one for use by someone as young as 10 years old. Childress also disagrees with the assertion that the pictures offer less-than-perfect quality.

"We've heard that, too," she said. "But it's really like any other camera."

It's not just young people who are using the phones. News organizations are also publishing cell photos from their readers to help cover stories. And an untold number of mobile phone snapshots are being posted daily to "moblogs," a visual form of the online journals better known as Web logs, or blogs.

Along with the positives, the popularity has escalated concerns that the phones will make it too easy for people to get pictures they shouldn't be taking -- like of people undressing in a gym or other locker rooms.

In Iowa, for example, there is a bill to ban cell phone cameras in places where people expect privacy. Several gyms across the country are already banning the phones entirely, as directors and their members become increasingly concerned about privacy violations.

Could be a felony

Cape Girardeau police said they haven't received complaints of people using the phone cameras illegally, though county prosecutor Morley Swingle said they certainly could be used in an illegal manner.

Swingle said if people use the cell phone cameras to take pictures of unknowing people in any state of undress, it would be an invasion of privacy. It could be a felony if photos were disseminated to others, Swingle said.

Southeast Missouri Hospital owns Main Street Fitness in Jackson and has plans to convert the old Albertsons building in Cape Girardeau to its new HealthPoint Plaza, which is scheduled to open this summer.

Frankie Erlacker, executive director of rehabilitation and fitness at the hospital, said there is no policy regarding cell phones with cameras but added it's something they plan to review.

"The inappropriate usage of cell phones with cameras in a fitness center setting is a serious consideration," she said. "As we review policies and bylaws for both HealthPoint Plaza and Main Street Fitness, this will be an important topic of discussion."

St. Francis Medical Center owns and operates Universal Health and Fitness Center and also has plans for a new Health and Wellness Center, to open in October.

"At Universal, the issue with the cell phone cameras has not come up, so we don't have a policy," said hospital spokeswoman Margo Francisco.

But Francisco said they are watching what's going on around the country and plan to bring up the privacy issue regarding cell phone cameras at the February meeting of the Member Advisory Board.

They are still finalizing the policies for Fitness Plus, the gym that will be in the new center, she said.

Behind Asia, Europe

While cell phone cameras are growing in popularity in the United States, this country still has lagged behind Asia and Europe in many facets of the mobile phone revolution.

Of the roughly 75 million camera phones shipped worldwide in 2003, only 6 million went to the United States, compared with more than 35 million to Japan, according to Strategy Analytics Ltd., a British consulting firm. Likewise, North America accounted for just 1.7 million of the world's 24 million "active" users of camera phones, compared with a combined 21.6 million in Japan and South Korea.

"We're seeing very healthy demand, but it's not realistic to think that the installed base will upgrade" to camera phones overnight, said Glenice Maclellan, vice president for messaging services at AT&T Wireless.

To fuel sales, carriers have cut camera phone prices sharply since the first model was introduced by Sprint in late 2002 with a list price of $400. Still, compared with the entry-level, cameraless phones that service providers sell for little or nothing, camera phones generally cost $100 and up with rebates and a two-year contract.

While the photos taken on a camera phone can also be sent to a regular e-mail address on a computer, many users are drawn by the novelty of sharing photos with other cellular shutterbugs, sending pictures among their handsets. Since subscribers generally pay by the volume of messages sent or received, that's the type of usage wireless companies are anxious to promote.

However, to share picture messages successfully with other cell phone users, those people must all be signed up with the same wireless service. Rival carriers have not reached any deals to interconnect their services.

"We sell a tremendous amount," said Raymond Akin, manager of AT&T Wireless in Cape Girardeau. "It's been out a couple of years, but right now all the carriers are making a push behind it. The industry says that within the next year, it will be a standard feature on phones. They're not going away."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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