‘Great for spying’ The funny – and creepy – reactions to camera phones being revealed in 2001

From political ‘gotcha’ moments to scuffles in the street, there’s little these days that doesn’t seem to end up having a camera pointed at it.

In the last century, it was the paparazzi and news photographers who snapped most of these things but, not knowing when or where they were going to happen much of the time, most of it went by undocumented.

Fast-forward 20 years and now everyone is pointing cameras at just about everything. Not just things spotted in the street but even our food. Never before in history has so much been photographed – and it’s all because of camera phones.

It’s now been two decades since these revolutionary gadgets first began to be noticed by technology pundits, having emerged from the research and development labs at some of the world’s top tech companies in 2000.

Strangely, however, it seems few really saw just what an enormous shift change they would bring, not only in how news is reported, but in how people’s obsession with snapping and ‘gramming’ every facet of their public lives, would lead to the evolution of everything from social media platforms to advertising.

An unadjusted image of a street taken on a Samsung SGH-V200 camera phone in 2003
An unadjusted image of a street taken on a Samsung SGH-V200 camera phone in 2003

In September 2001, the BBC reported on the new development, explaining to readers that you “compose your pictures by using the onscreen display, or you can flip the phone around and use the self-timer”. Handy for those early 2000s selfies as it even had “a tiny mirror next to the lens to help you frame self-portraits”.

Most interesting was when readers were invited to describe what they would do with a gadget like this, prompting some fantastic responses that now exist as a time capsule of public opinion before mobile technology became mainstream. Some are hilarious, while others are rather prophetic of what was to come.

One reader, Lizz, suggested they would have “infinite uses for the teenager” but was “not entirely sure what the rest of us would do with one”.

Lizz also speculated that girls would not need to go shopping in groups as “they could each scout out the good outfits, send pictures, and compare prices”.

When camera phones appeared, it wasn’t unusual for them to be presented as an extension of the Japanese photo booth craze, the far-eastern nation being where the devices first sneaked into the public consciousness in 2000.

The Sharp J-SH04 is credited with popularising the concept, and was the world’s first fully integrated camera phone. In its native Japan, owners could take pictures of their friends and family and send them to other people who happened to also own a Sharp J-SH04 via its ‘Sha-Mail’ service.

The picture resolution was, as you may expect, pretty poor, with its camera only able to resolve 110,000 pixels. Compare that to the typical 12-million pixels seen on your average smartphone today, not to mention vastly superior sensors and lenses, and the inevitable gulf is clear.

Other models in the early days included the Nokia 7650, which was Europe’s first camera phone and cost £200 (a lot for a phone in 2002), the Sony Ericsson T68i, also in 2002, which actually needed a separate camera module to send picture messages on T Mobile, and the Samsung SGH-V200 – a flip phone with a rotatable camera in the hinge. However, photos had to be downloaded to a computer with a USB cable to be shared with others on that model.

Meanwhile, Johanna described the camera phone as “a curious invention” and predicted people would find them “handy for delicate investigation or infiltration”. A rather sinister but accurate prophecy there Johanna.

Similarly seeing the potential for covert snaps, Levi said: “I would use the camera during business meetings to take sneaky pictures of competitors’ notes for analysis later”.

It got even worse with Rob, who said: “Great for spying. The camera could be held against a keyhole, and the images immediately sent to any interested parties.”

Another reader, John, was less creepy in his ambitions for the new device, saying he could “take pictures of friendly dogs I see what I walk around”.

A different John foresaw the confrontation-with-a-camera culture saying he’d “like to use it when I am very angry, like when I have taken a day off work and a tradesman does not appear”. Lightening the mood, he added: “I would also use it to express joy, like when I am especially pleased by a present.”

Glenn, possibly sarcastically but certainly nailing the trivial things people take pictures of, said: “There’s so much I’m looking forward to photographing … grumpy commuters, clouds, sleeping dogs, minor vehicle collisions in car parks, geese, steam, have-a-go-heroes”.

Camera phones have been used to take trivial pictures since the earliest days - here as university coursework is handed in on a Samsung SGH-V200 in 2003
Camera phones have been used to take trivial pictures since the earliest days – here as university coursework is handed in on a Samsung SGH-V200 in 2003

Despite it being 2001, when hardly any phones even had colour screens, several readers were absolutely spot on in their predictions of what would emerge in the future too.

Andy accurately forecast the arrival of the smartphone a few years later, saying “we will soon end up with lots of obsolete also-rans when one holy grail of a device will eventually be able to do it all”, and even predicted “video transmission to TV” from a phone – like Google Chromecast – as well as integrated GPS, e-mail, web browser and zoom lenses.

Predicting what has become a huge deal over the past couple of years of lockdowns and restrictions, Steven said: “I would use the camera phone to talk to people in a separate location and also to take photographs.”

The way phones would very gradually improve with new models churned out each year was also forecast. Describing exactly how manufacturers have drip-fed features over the years, Trung said: “It’s only a first step in making that video cell phone. I can see companies releasing this phone to get as much cash as they could so they could continue their quest to making that perfect video cellphone.”

Stuart, however, wasn’t convinced by the device, saying: “Just another example of technological advances enticing us to pay ever more money for lower quality images.” For quite a few years, he probably wasn’t wrong!


Steve Liem

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