Rumor Has It: LED Flash Destined for Next iPhone


They say the best camera you own is the one you have on you right now. So, unless you habitually carry a high-end DSLR on your person everywhere you go, your best camera is likely your iPhone. And that’s not exactly something to brag about, given how disappointing the iPhone camera can be.

That might be changing. According to AppleInsider, Apple is in the market for an LED flash manufacturer:

Apple in recent months has moved to procure significant quantities of LED camera flash components that could help the iPhone maker’s next-generation mobile handsets produce superior image and video captures in low-light situations.

People familiar with Apple’s initiative claim the electronics maker is seeking allotments of LED camera flash components in the tens of millions for delivery during the 2010 calendar year, meaning future iPhones — and possibly the iPod touch — are the most likely recipients of those parts, due to their sales volume. Those same people say that Philips’ Lumileds Lighting sector is believed to be the front-runner for Apple’s business and may have already secured the design win.

It’s all good news, of course, but I won’t hold my breath. It took two years for Apple to upgrade the iPhone camera in any significant manner, and even now with the 3GS 3.2 megaxpixels and video recording, the camera is still a colossal waste of time.

The 3GS might be the fastest iPhone yet, but the camera app is still painfully slow. If you’re taking an impulse shot with your iPhone (let’s say your cat is doing something unbelievably hilarious and you really must capture it right now, this second) the chances are you’re going to miss the moment. The virtual iris takes an age to ‘open’ as the camera app (and all its auto-stabilizing algorithms) are loaded into memory. And then there’s the issue with light; unless your cat is doing its unbelievably hilarious thing in the garden, and it’s a blazingly-bright sunny day, and it’s not moving around very much, you’re unlikely to get a good photo. Frankly, the iPhone makes for a lousy point-and-shoot camera.

“But I didn’t buy my iPhone to take pictures,” you might say, “That’s what I have a real camera for!” And that’s true… except for those times when you don’t have your ‘real’ camera on you. And it is those moments — when your iPhone takes just long-enough to be roused to readiness that your cat loses interest and wanders off — that you curse Steve Jobs and all who work for him.

I’ve always found this paradoxical; for a company that prides itself on not making crappy products, that strives to guarantee a rewarding user experience time after time, it has given us consistently rubbish camera functionality in what is, without a doubt, one of its highest profile products.

Turning Point

I’m hopeful that, if true, this rumor marks a turning point, and that Apple is focusing (pun intended) on the camera hardware and really aiming (sorry!) to do something worthwhile with the camera on the next iPhone. The expected upgrade would be a five megapixel sensor with a super-bright LED flash. Other mobile handsets (such as the Motorola Droid and the Nexus One) already offer these specs, while Nokia and Sony Ericsson have been producing decent camera-phones for some years now. But what if Apple was to surprise us and really upgrade the camera with something far more compelling; how about a real glass optical assembly — not a cheap blob of resin atop a CCD? Or what about greatly-updated, super-responsive camera software that puts even dedicated point-and-shoot cameras to shame?

Of course, a significantly improved camera means larger hardware, and Apple is never going to tolerate a noticeable increase in the iPhone’s dimensions. After all, rightly or wrongly, the perceived benchmark for consumer electronics progress is about getting things smaller, thinner and lighter.

A Difficult Place

AppleInsider adds:

[Rumors indicate Apple] has placed orders with OmniVision, its current supplier of CMOS image sensors, for as many as 45 million 5-megapixel parts for the next-generation of the handset due by late spring. The company is also likely to leverage the iPhone’s ambient light sensor, in addition to providing a software switch, to ensure that the LED flash won’t interfere in photos where it isn’t needed. […] And since the same LED flash can also be operated as a continuous light source, it would be suitable for proving light to enhance iPhone video recordings as well — not to mention closing the book on the numerous, dinky iPhone flashlight apps proliferating the App Store.

Apple is now in a difficult place with the iPhone. The company is committed to its traditional vision of producing products that are functional and beautiful, and it simply won’t compromise on style; if an improved camera means a bigger iPhone, it just won’t improve the camera until the technology fits its desired form factor. But, in the meantime, that leaves customers frustrated that their super-expensive ‘smart’ phones aren’t nearly as smart as the competition.

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