Nikon just launched the first-ever Android-powered point-and-shoot camera. It’s a smart move designed to make the company’s line of consumer products relevant in a world of ubiquitous phonecams. It could also turn out to be good for mobile photography in general. If the concept catches on, we’ll see a dramatic improvement in the quality of images posted on Instagram, Flickr, Facebook and other services. 

The Coolpix S800c looks no different from any other point-and-shoot until you flip it around. The back of the device more closely resembles a smartphone, complete with the Android 2.3 home screen filling up a 3.5-inch display. Yes, it will have access to apps in the Google Play store.

It’s only fitting that the line between smartphones and cameras would be blurred in this way. More and more of the world’s photographs are being snapped on phones and it’s up to the camera manufacturers to find a way to keep up. If only Kodak had thought of something like this

Even the Best Smartphone Cameras Suck

The two most popular cameras used on Flickr aren’t even cameras. They’re the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S.

As nice as the cameras are on even the best smartphones, though, they still don’t compare to the specs on devices whose sole purpose is taking photos. Take the camera on the iPhone 4S, which is considered one of the best of its kind. Its 8-megapixel censor is good, but Nikon and Canon both double that resolution with their entry level consumer point-and-shoots. Like previous models, the Coolpix S800c shoots 16-megapixel images. 

Smartphone cameras have other serious limitations. Their lenses have a fixed focal distance, so zooming in requires a faked digital zoom that rarely produces good results. By contrast, the S800c has a legit 10x optical zoom. To its credit, the iPhone 4S has a pretty wide aperture, which lets in a reasonable anount of light, it still doesn’t do well in low light. Anybody who has tried to snap a picture in a dimly-lit bar without turning on the iPhone’s (often gross-looking) flash knows that the device wasn’t built for low-light photography. By contrast, cameras like the Nikon Coolpix and Canon PowerShow can boast ISO’s as high as 3200, which allows for much clearer images taken in low light. 

Because of the technical restrictions inherent in an iPhone or Android smartphone, there is a whole range of scenarios and places that just don’t look good on Instagram, filters or not. Sure, some users copy images from their SLR or point-and-shoot and upload them Instagram, but that’s a minority of the service’s 80 million users. For most, it’s too laborious. By baking a familiar mobile OS into its cameras, Nikon is streamlining the process of getting higher-quality images onto Instagram, Facebook and a host of other photo apps and social networks. 

Canon and Apple, Take Note

More important, the Coolpix S800c might pressure other companies to update their own products accordingly. Canon would be foolish not to consider adapting its line of compact point-and-shoots, and both companies may consider baking a mobile operating system into higher-end SLR cameras. If smart cameras catch on, Apple and other phonemakers will be that much more inclined to enhance the iPhone’s camera by more than just a few megapixels per year. 

The result of all of this would be more photos more widely shared and of much higher quality. It’s a noble goal, and an exiciting one – but first we’ll have to see whether consumers are willing to buy and carry device that’s dedicated to snapping photos. 

john paul titlow