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Photo frames: The next big thing in wireless?

Posted: 12 Mar 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Digital photo frame  connected digital photo frame  connected home  wireless connectivity to 

Certainly, a photo frame (digital or otherwise) is a notion that any proud grandparent can grasp. But that's a potential minus as well as a plus: Many consumers think of a digital photo frame as an accessory to be purchased from a retailer's housewares department, loaded with photos, placed in the den or given as a gift, and then largely forgotten. As such, the frame should require no sophistication on the user's part to set it up (or on the vendor's part to market it). But that raises the issue of how many users are even interested in connecting their frames to the Internet.

Market demand
Indeed, in 2008, according to Parks Associates senior analyst Harry Wang, only 3.2 per cent of the digital photo frames sold were Wi-Fi connected—down from 2007's 4 per cent. Wang put the dip in context, noting that high global growth for the digital frame market overall last year might have stolen some of the connected units' thunder and that the recession took its toll. "Consumers traded down during the second half of 2008," said Wang.

Another telling finding of the Parks Associates research is that 69 per cent of users in the United States in 2007 had received their frames as gifts. There are upsides to gift-item status: A certain volume of sales can be relied upon, and owners who are not entirely happy with the product are less inclined to return it. The downside is that gift recipients are prone to indifference towards the product. One chip-vendor executive cited a separate market study indicating that 40 per cent of consumers given a digital photo frame as a gift had never bothered to plug it into a wall socket.

Worse, the typical consumer admits that getting photos into the frame is "confusing" or "hard." While it's possible to download pictures by inserting a solid-state memory card into the back of the frame, "you do get tired of preloaded pictures," said Chumby's Tomlin. Thus the killer app for connected digital photo frames is "photo sharing" over the Web, Tomlin said.

RMI's home media player chip can drive a connected digital photo frame user interface like this one.

RMI's home media player chip can drive a connected digital photo frame user interface like this one

But that poses the danger of even greater user confusion and frustration, warned Parks Associates' Wang.

It's been reported that low-quality frames sometimes cannot handle different types of Wi-Fi routers. And configuring even a higher-quality frame for user with a home network is not a straightforward process.

Then there's the possibility that a power disruption will take down the network. "How does one get the digital photo frame up and running again? It's a nightmare for older consumers," warned Wang.

That might explain why cellular carriers are pursuing an opportunity of their own, pitching 3G data cards that plug into digital frames.

Connectivity trouble
"The big problem carriers solve is connectivity," said RMI's Miller. "Consumers would not need to type in the WEP [Wired Equivalency Privacy] password, as they would if a digital photo frame were connected to a Wi-Fi router at home." The downside, Miller said, "is high cost and low bandwidth."

Eastman Kodak Co., one of the most recognised brands in the U.S. digital photo frame market, currently offers seven models, two of which are Wi-Fi-enabled. The connected frames "don't sell as well as the rest [of the digital frames in Kodak's line], because wireless frames are still evolving," said Jack Rieger, the company's product line manager for digital photo frames.

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