With WiFi rapidly advancing as the hottest trend in digital cameras these days, connectivity’s impact on the market is definitely exciting and undeniable, although ultimately not a new concept.  Connected technology is more visible and essential than ever in today’s world, and will continue to be as future generations grow up with social networking and a drive for instant sharing programed into their culture.

This wasn’t always the case though.  When the WiFi camera concept first debuted, there was little application for the technology and its appeal could be described as “niche” at best.  Years later, wireless technologies, and more importantly, usages, have improved, leading to an explosion of connected cameras to satisfy a market that can now be described as ready.

The connected camera concept began in 2005 with Kodak’s launch of the WiFi-equipped EasyShare ONE, a truly revolutionary addition to the market, and one that can be placed on the long list of imaging innovations that Kodak is responsible for.  The EasyShare ONE, which commanded a colossal $599 price tag, left consumers questioning the usefulness of WiFi, at a time when home and social networks were not as commonplace as we are now accustomed to.

Interestingly, the same year that Kodak launched its EasyShare ONE saw the transformation of photo-sharing website Ofoto.com into the EasyShare Gallery.  The WiFi-equipped camera was designed to beam directly to Kodak’s new Gallery, creating an eco-system of sorts for camera users.  The service could have had a major impact as a pioneering social network, but sadly Kodak never supported this with other WiFi camera products.

2005 also saw WiFi camera launches from industry heavy-weights Canon and Nikon.  Both companies offered vanilla-flavored wireless printing and PC transfer as their only applications for WiFi, and the only benefits gained by healthy premiums.  Canon’s $499 PowerShot SD430 charged $100 for its connectivity over the identical SD450, as Nikon’s $549 and $399 CoolPix P-series models struggled to translate their need to sticker-shocked shoppers.

Despite the unpopularity of WiFi among consumers, Nikon stuck to its connected guns, launching multiple step-up CoolPix models for the next 3 years.  The camera-maker experimented with style to attract status-seeking shoppers and even launched a “CoolPix Connect” email service to support its SKUs.  However, the limited usage for WiFi was still a deterrent, causing Nikon to abandon the unprofitable “niche” in 2008.

During early years, Sony and Panasonic tried their hands in the WiFi realm as well, which interestingly led to dramatic spikes in the gradually downward-trending average price that corresponded with Sony’s involvement in 2007 and 2009 ($599 Cyber-shot G1, $499 Cyber-shot G3).  Panasonic’s primary selling point was its partnership with big names like T-Mobile and Google’s budding Picasa site.  The company offered a “complimentary” one-year subscription to T-Mobile’s wireless hot-spot services, but as the WiFi-equipped $449 Lumix DMCTZ50 held a $100 premium over the identical TZ5, the service was hardly a freebee.

In 2009 Samsung threw its weight into the WiFi camera market in a time where it faced little direct competition (none in 2010!).  The manufacturer greatly contributed to the lowering of average prices as it searched for the sweet spot, which it found in 2011 with a $199 SH 100.  The sub-$200 camera offered a direct link to Facebook and an interface that bore a haunting resemblance to the Android OS, playing toward youthful appeal and the strong ecosystem that Samsung has for its HDTV, smartphone, and tablet categories.  The camera became the widest-distributed WiFi SKU the industry had seen, and the first camera to successfully break outside of the “niche” market.

2012: the year of the WiFi camera.  A total of 21 WiFi-equipped digital camera models have launched this year as manufacturers rush to adapt to the smartphone threat and provide SKUs to a market now eager for connectivity.

Samsung flexes its strength as the connected-leader by placing WiFi into almost every model launched (10 so far this year).  The company is responsible for debuting connectivity to the mirrorless and enthusiast camera segments, while most recently infusing the latest Android operating system into its Galaxy Camera to leverage the branding of its popular tablets and smartphones!

Canon and Nikon are back this year, with the latter manufacturer debuting its own Android-powered CoolPix in an attempt to provide a richer experience than its previous print-centric wireless SKUs.  Sony also reenters the WiFi game, attacking Samsung with a serious mirrorless NEX shooter and a major push into the ecosystem front with its PlayMemories suite.  Despite the advanced nature of this gear, average prices for WiFi cameras are still declining with the quantity and contributions of other brands.  2012 brings the first FujiFilm WiFi cameras (3 so far), which most notably include the industry’s first ruggedized connected camera for social networking underwater.

What next? …it’s all about the apps.  As WiFi morphs from a top-shelf “halo” specification to a standard feature expected in digital cameras, the need for an easy and comprehensive ecosystem is critical.  Truly ubiquitous end-to-end experiences are what consumers are looking for, and soon purchasing decisions, both new and repeat, will be made based on the eco system that a desired gadget falls within, and the advantages that it brings to what they already own.  We see companies strong in other categories combining product portfolios to cater to this, which places them at an advantage over traditional camera-makers who have been slow to develop ecosystems that consumers want to be a part of.  Current WiFi cameras can stream live, remotely view content, control settings, access social networks/cloud-based destinations, download apps, and email direct, as well as PC archiving and printing.  These robust wireless features, when integrated properly within a seamless ecosystem, represent the most important success factors for camera-makers and the traditional camera category in today’s increasingly connected world.