March 27, 1997 11:30 AM ET
Intel joins Kodak in battle to send digital photography mainstream
By Robert Lemos

  If Intel Corp. and Eastman Kodak Co. are right, digital photography is poised to become the next major multimedia market.

Earlier this week, the two companies announced their collaboration on developing a standard way to use digital cameras and PCs together. The gist of the plan: a multipronged assault on today's schizophrenic digital standards, attacking everything from image formats to camera design.

Specifics of the two companies' offensive were scarce. Yet, what Intel and Kodak's announcement lacked in detail, it more than made up for in significance.

At stake: a market that accounted for more than 17 billion photographs in 1994 and 1995, according to the Photo Marketing Association. What's more, International Data Corp. projects that sales of digital cameras will total 15 million by the year 2000. And those kinds of numbers have some industry executives suggesting that it won't be long before every computer comes with its own camera.

"The digital photograph will be as ubiquitous and as much a form of communication as text and E-mail is today," remarked Ron Smith, vice president and general manager of Intel's Computing Enhancement Group, in Santa Clara, Calif.

If so, Intel and Kodak have laid the groundwork on which mainstream digital photography will be built.

"Today, pretty much every digital camera is a closed system," explains Alexis Gerard, publisher of The Future Image Report, which covers the digital imaging market. "Each does everything in a unique way."

To combat this situation, the two companies intend to announce specifications by midsummer that will standardize the way to connect digital cameras to Intel computers, develop software for the Intel MMX platform to edit and manipulate the images, and offer services to enhance digital photographs.

Intel and Kodak's collaboration adds momentum to the digital image market while at the same time pulling the two companies into a more central role. According to Future Image's Gerard, the announcement reinforces Kodak's commitment to the market.

"More significant is Intel's commitment to digital imaging--that they are saying the digital photo imaging market will be huge."

Kodak is pushing its FlashPix digital image format, already a de facto standard, into the mainstream. More important for Kodak's bottom line, perhaps, is Intel's backing in marketing the Kodak Picture Network, a set of digital services intended to supplement capabilities of the desktop. This network is one strategy that could replace the revenues that will disappear as film rolls are supplanted by flash memory.

For Intel, this is one battle in the war for "terra multimedia"--a war driven by the new capabilities of the company's MMX microprocessors.

"With the MMX-enabled chips, Intel has the opportunity to get many more multimedia developers on board," said Robert Blumberg, vice president and general manager of Live Picture, Inc., the multimedia startup that created much of the technology behind Kodak's FlashPix digital image format.

But MMX is not the only technology that Intel is adding to the recipe. The company hopes that its USB (Universal Serial Bus) format will govern the connection of cameras to computers for faster download. To replace film rolls, Intel is proposing its Miniature Card format as the standard to insure a compatible way to store and transfer images.

"We are looking at this as an overall architecture for using photographs in cyberspace," said Intel's Smith.

Both companies hope that the initiative will unify the players in the digital imaging market. FlashPix is already backed by its initial creators--Kodak, Microsoft Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Live Picture Inc.--as well as Fuji, Canon, Apple Computer Inc., IBM and now Intel.

However, not all aspects of the proposal will be endorsed by the industry.

"While USB is a given for the initial standard, it will not become the sole standard--it's a bit slow for higher-resolution images," remarked Future Image's Gerard. "What happens with the miniature card and the Kodak Picture Network remain to be seen," he continued.

Intel is expected to announce that MMX will be supported in the three major software development kits for digital imaging applications. Current development kits are available from Kodak, Live Picture and Microsoft.

Hardware based on the yet-to-be-released standards could be available as soon as the fourth quarter of 1997, making 1998 the start of the movement of digital imaging into the mainstream.

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