My sister and I don't see eye to eye on how the Internet will change personal photography. She's with the Brownie Crowd. I'm leaning toward the Digital Shutterbugs.
Our views reflect the competing business strategies and multimillion-dollar bets behind the dozens of new consumer photo services rolling online. They include the "You've Got Pictures" joint venture from Eastman Kodak Co. and America Online Inc., the GatherRound.com photo-sharing Web site by Intel Corp., the Zing.com photo community with unlimited free photo storage and all manner of start-ups.
Everyone thinks more photos will be kept on computers; the big question is how people will choose to digitize their images. Will they still take rolls of film to traditional film processors and pay them to put the photos online or on CD-ROMs? Will amateur photographers scan their own paper photos themselves, or will they buy digital cameras and zap images directly into their computers?
The Brownie Crowd is betting mostly on the first scenario, whose largest player is "You've Got Pictures." The Digital Shutterbugs include many Internet-only photo communities such as PhotoLoft and Ememories.com.
Much as the MP3 file-storage format has the music industry in an uproar, digital photography has the photo industry running scared. Photos, like music, can be sent over the global network.
Internet use is skyrocketing while prices for digital cameras and scanners are in a free fall. Giants like Eastman Kodak that are deep into 35mm film technology and photo paper could lose big in the digital marketplace as people gain more choices.
Kodak is betting that consumers will be willing to pay a little extra to receive e-mailed copies along with their paper prints. Or maybe even cough up $10 a roll to have their images burned onto its new Picture CD. Or pay AOL and Kodak about $18 per year to save each batch of 30 images online.
Then again, they might bypass Kodak entirely and flock to the array of competing Web sites that are trying to build picture communities, many by offering free image storage and sophisticated editing tools. Most are trying to make money selling advertising and personalized photo gifts.
"We are fundamentally changing the definition of a picture--it's a captured image you can use throughout your life," said Mark Platshon, chief executive of Zing.com, which ranked as one of the five fastest-growing sites on the Web in a recent week tracked by Media Metrix Inc.
Industry watchers say nearly 10 percent of 70 billion photos taken worldwide this year likely will be digitized, and the percentage could shoot to 50 percent within five years. Kodak, which has a near monopoly on film processing in the United States, insists that the move to digital will spark such an explosion of personal photo-taking and sharing via the Internet that people will wind up ordering more film and paper products.
"We believe people will take more pictures in total, but still take an awful lot more with film," said Michael Foss, chief executive of Kodak's digital imaging subsidiary, PictureVision Inc.
Kodak bought 51 percent of the Herndon-based company last year and is using it to provide digital technology to its vast photo-processing operation and to create Internet photo services (at PhotoNet.com) for consumers and corporate partners.
Kodak's biggest gambit is the "You've Got Pictures" service that will be touted on the front welcoming screen of AOL. The service became available at 40,000 photofinishers nationwide last week, but AOL is turning on the welcoming icon slowly, city by city, because it is concerned about its capacity to handle data traffic spikes.
Here's how it works: You drop off film at a photofinisher and pay the regular processing fee to get your images on paper, floppy disk or CD. If you also check "AOL" on the bag, you get digital copies e-mailed to your AOL account for an extra $5.95. You can then create electronic photo albums, e-mail images to friends and store up to 50 images on AOL for free.
When I signed onto AOL this week, the same voice that usually intones "You've Got Mail" called out "You've Got Pictures"--not once but twice. I clicked on the film icon and found a "buddy album" sent from another AOL user. I spent an hour testing every feature--e-mailing, captions, album creation and layout--and found it the easiest online photo tool I've used. My main disappointment is that AOL won't let me upload images from my digital camera (next year, they promise) and is charging me $1 per image to save high-resolution copies on my hard drive. You can download medium-quality images for free, but you'll pay extra for printer quality.
I'm not surprised. Kodak is supplying the service, and it is heavily invested in paper reprints. Separately, Kodak is testing its own service that would allow consumers to create and order paper albums from digital images.
An Internet start-up called PhotoLoft, meanwhile, noted in stock-offering papers that its special printing software helps people print high-quality images directly from the Internet. "This technology directly rivals the traditional photo-processing model," the filing says.
Kodak also faces competition from Seattle Filmworks, a mail-in processor that is offering free "lifetime" online archiving of photos to its regular customers and already has nearly 50 million images stored.
If the industry went by me, they'd bet against 35mm film retaining its market share. I rarely go anywhere without my digital camera now.
Last Sunday, I e-mailed my brother and sister the address of a Web photo album I built of our beach vacation at Zing.com.
My sister, Stacey, promptly called to say she liked the ease of viewing but was less than thrilled with the blurry images. She remains convinced that most people will continue paying for the convenience of paper prints.
But as I watch my beach moments flit across my computer monitor courtesy of a slide-show screen saver from Zing.com, I can't help believing she, too, will soon hang up that Brownie and join the Digital Shutterbugs.
CAPTION: Zing.com is one of many Web sites that allow people to upload images into virtual photo albums