The Camera Phone is 20 Years Old!


When Philippe Kahn and his wife were expecting their first child, his plan was to photograph the event using his smartphone so he could share the event with friends and family. The only problem was that it was 1997 and smartphones hadn’t been invented yet. So, Kahn did what any mathematician / technological envelope-pusher would do: he shoehorned a miniature camera into a Motorola cell phone and—voilà!—on June 11, 1997, Kahn could share pictures of his newborn baby girl, Sophie, with about 2,000 friends and family members. You know where the story goes from here.

Though it’s difficult to imagine a world without “picture phones,” they began making cameo appearances in futuristic science-fiction films long before smartphones began decimating the bottom lines of camera manufacturers.

The very first wireless picturephone prototype, which was also known as the “Intellect,” was developed by Daniel Henderson, in 1993, but because the Internet was still in its infancy, there wasn’t much he could do with it—in comparison to the gymnastics modern smartphones can perform.

Apple’s Videophone made the rounds at trade shows, in 1995, along with other experimental devices from Kodak, Olympus, and Canon, but we had to wait until the year 2000 before we could step up to the counter and purchase one of our own.

Depending on whom you ask and how you define a “true” camera phone, the first commercially available camera-enabled phone was either the Samsung SCH-V200, which was introduced in June, 2000, or Sharp Electronics J-SH04 J-Phone, which was introduced 5 months later, in November of 2000.

Samsung SCH-V200 Camera Phone

By today’s standards, the cameras in each of these phones were primitive. Samsung’s SCH-V200 featured a 1.5" TFT-LCD, which was more than enough screen size for viewing the 0.35MP image files. The SCH-V200 could capture up to 20 exposures, but to share them or do anything with them, for that matter, you had to first transfer the image files to a computer.

Sharp Electronics J-SH04 J-Phone

The camera in Sharp’s J-Phone was even less impressive—it contained only 0.11MP, but the camera and phone were truly integrated (Samsung’s camera phone was like Kahn’s original hack job, a phone and a camera housed in a common enclosure). Many consider the J-Phone to be the first true camera phone to come to market because, in addition to containing a fully integrated phone and camera system, the J-Phone allowed you to share pictures directly from the phone, with no computer needed.

And wouldn’t you know—the infrastructure of Sharp’s J-Phone was developed by a company named LightSurf, which was created and managed by Sophia’s proud Papa, Phillipe Kahn, who went on to become, among other things, the founder of Fullpower Technologies, Borland, and Starfish Software.

Do you remember your first camera phone? How does it compare to your phone today? Let us know in the Comments section, below. And for a podcast about camera phone photography, iPhone photography, and a review of the iPhone 7, click here.