Sharing photos from a phone is easy as breathing these days, and we have Philippe Khan to thank for paving the way. In June 1997, he achieved a technological first that would be repeated countless times in the following decades: he shared a digital photo instantly.
Philippe Kahn may not be a name you’re familiar with (or maybe you are) but his contributions to early mobile technology and social media are difficult to overlook.
It was 20 years ago this past Sunday – June 11, 1997, to be exact – that Kahn snapped a photo of his just-born daughter Sophie with a mobile phone and shared it over the Internet with around 2,000 friends, family and business connections.
Twenty years ago, at the Sutter Maternity Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., while his wife was in labor, Philippe Kahn hacked together a Motorola StarTAC flip phone, a Casio QV digital camera that took 320 by 240 pixel images, and a Toshiba 430CDT laptop computer. When he took a picture with the camera, the system would automatically dial up his Web server and upload the picture to it at 1200 baud. The server would send email alerts to a list of friends and family, who could then log on and view the photo.
It wasn’t a brand new concept for Kahn; he’d spent about a year working on a Web-based infrastructure that he called Picture Mail. Picture Mail would do what we now call “sharing”—that is, one user would upload a photo and text, designated as something to share with a particular list of contacts (say, “friends,” “family,” or “colleagues”). The system would send email notifications to everyone at that list, directing them to visit the host Web page to view the picture. Kahn says he was aiming to be the Polaroid of the 21st century, providing “Instant Picture Mail” that would be a digital update of Polaroid’s vision of the instant camera.
What he hadn’t gotten around to building was the consumer hardware piece of the puzzle. Photography wasn’t going to be instant if you had to hook your camera up to your computer and go to a particular website every time you took a picture.
“I had always wanted to have this all working in time to share my daughter’s birth photo,” Kahn recalls, “but I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.”
Thanks to his wife spending 18 hours in labor at the local maternity center, he had a little time to build the prototype. He realized he had most of what he needed with him—in particular, the phone’s car kit, including a plug that allowed the phone to connect to a car speaker system. For the rest of what he needed, he asked an assistant to make a run to Radio Shack and drop off the additional gear at the hospital.
“It’s always the case that if it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done,” Kahn says.
Kahn got it working before the baby came, and 11 June 1997 has gone down in history as the birth of a whole new world.
Some call this milestone the beginning of the camera phone. It’s not exactly that; Kahn acknowledges that others had put photo sensors in phones before. And it’s also not the first time someone sent someone else a digital photo on the Internet. But it was the first time that a photo went from one person to a broad list of his friends and family members instantly, with just a touch of a button. Kahn now calls the milestone Instant Share, and points out that this is the way social media still works today—you upload an image once to a site that stores it, and then notifications are broadcast and people follow a link back to the stored image.
Today, of course, instant sharing of photos—evolving to videos—is everywhere. It’s the idea behind Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook Live. It has changed the way we connect with our friends and the world, and changed the way we experience things. For many, it’s hard to put the phone down and watch something interesting without sharing an image. Camera phones have even spawned dystopian visions of a world in which everything is shared, as in “The Circle.”
All this, looking back, seemed to grow organically. But, according to Kahn, that wasn’t exactly the case. He had to do a lot of plowing to prepare the soil, to extend the metaphor.
“After the baby,” he says, “I spent the next month integrating the design, using a microcontroller, a CMOS sensor, and a phone.” In early 1998, he founded a company around the technology, Lightsurf, and eventually received a handful of patents on the work, he recalls.
He took the technology, he says, “to Kodak, Polaroid, and [other camera companies]; they all had wireless camera projects, but none of them could imagine that the future was digital photography inside the phone, with Instant-Picture-Mail software and service infrastructure. They collectively came to the conclusion that phones would be focused on voice—this was before texting—and that cameras would become wireless.”
Having struck out in the U.S., Kahn moved on to pitch Japanese companies. He had no luck with dominant mobile phone service provider Docomo, but found enthusiasm at J-Phone. J-Phone, he says, then brought in Sharp to design their “Sha-Mail” (translated as “Picture-Mail”) phone, and the product was a success.
Back in the U.S., Wired magazine covered Kahn and LightSurf, prompting Sprint to contact him; Sprint worked with LightSurf and Casio to launch the first U.S. camera phone in 2002.
Even from the early days, Kahn says, he had a sense that instant photo sharing really was going to change the world. “Citizen journalism immediately came to mind; we were documenting the birth of my daughter, but that was just the beginning.” He believed that other, more political events would be documented, “and it has happened. People can’t hide things anymore. There is always someone with a camera phone taking a video; people can’t just claim that something didn’t happen.”
Bob Parks, who interviewed Kahn for the Wired article in 2000, confirms Kahn’s prescience. Parks says: “He was telling me things like, ‘In the future people will document crimes using video on their phones. Then everyone will know the real story.’ At the time I was skeptical. I thought, ‘OK, guy, I guess we’ll see how that works out.’”
For Kahn personally, the invention worked out quite well: LightSurf was acquired by Verisign in 2005 for approximately $270 million, the intellectual property scattered in later sales and, Kahn said, was tussled over in courts. Kahn is no longer involved with the technology—he has a new startup, FullPower Technologies, that has developed under-the-mattress sensors and cloud based artificial intelligence to gather data and personalize recommendations to help customers improve their sleep. But he’s thrilled watching phone-based photo sharing explode around the world.
“If you go to Africa, people don’t have laptops. They have phones with cameras and they do everything with them—sell things, buy things, telemedicine. If a person’s house burns down these days, their pictures aren’t lost, their memories are stored in the cloud. I see tourists with selfie-sticks and I think it’s fantastic, the more cameras the better. It’s a fantastic power to be in the hands of Mr. and Mrs. Everyone.”
And that rush to cobble together a prototype in the maternity room? Absolutely worth it, Kahn says: “The picture of my daughter’s birth was a magical, unique, instant moment and worth a million words.”
(Kahn narrates a reenactment of the birth in the video below; the building of the prototype starts at 1:35.)
Twenty years ago Sunday, Philippe and Sonya Kahn spent 18 hours at a hospital in Santa Cruz, waiting for their baby Sophie to be born. Like nearly all expectant fathers, Philippe Kahn planned to take a picture of the new baby but, instead of waiting till he got home to distribute the photo to friends online, he wanted to do it directly from the hospital. But that was in 1997 when there were no camera phones. So he invented one.
Kahn, who previously founded Borland International and Starfish Software, had already configured a home server to store images, automatically notify friends about new images and send them a link so they could view them via the web. But there was no way to get the pictures to the server directly from a camera.
Philippe Kahn took the first ever cell phone picture of his then-newborn daughter Sophie in Santa Cruz County.
Kahn had a Casio QV-10, the first consumer-grade digital camera with an LCD display that, he said, “made pixelated but nice 320 by 240 pictures.” He also had a Motorola StarTAC “flip” phone, so during Sonia’s 18 hours of labor, he thought about finding a way to connect the two so he could upload a picture of the baby directly from the hospital.
“It was clear that I had a hardware problem. Short of taking the phone apart I needed to interface with the phone,” he said in an interview.
He also needed to connect a laptop to control the camera/phone connection. Phones then couldn’t connect to either laptops or cameras but – as he pondered the problem – he remembered he had a StarTAC speaker phone kit in his car which, of course, could connect to the phone. With his wife’s blessing, he “literally ran down to my car, took out the whole speaker phone kit and started working frantically at creating a software/firmware/hardware interface” that enabled him to send the pictures from the laptop, which was connected to both the camera and the phone.
As luck would have it, he finished this Rube Goldberg device just in time for the arrival of Sophie and snapped what was not only Sophie’s first picture, but the first picture taken by what eventually evolved into the camera phone.
Kahn’s server sent links to this image to friends, family and colleagues and he started hearing from people who were impressed at how quickly he got this picture from the hospital to their screens, which made him realize he had a potential product.
“Immediately it became clear that we needed a CMOS (complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor) sensor and a micro controller unit integrated in phones. So we built these prototypes that were interfaced with the exact software/server/service-infrastructure,” he said.
With a prototype in hand, Kahn tried to convince the CEOs of Kodak and Polaroid to create an integrated phone and camera “but none of them could imagine that the phone would be the integrating device.” He said that they “hired consultants, market pundits and they all collectively came to the conclusion that phones would be focused on voice and that cameras would become wireless.” Both Kodak and Polaroid later went bankrupt.
“They totally missed the paradigm shift,” said Kahn.
Unable to find a partner in the U.S., Kahn took his idea to Japan but had no success with big players like NTT Docomo. But he did find interest from a small carrier called J-Phone, which, in 1999 partnered with Sharp along with Kahn’s company LightSurf, to design a “Picture-Mail phone.” In 2002 Kahn’s company worked with Sprint and Casio on the first U.S. camera phone.
Sprint loaned me one of those first phones to review. I picked it up at their office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and, after leaving the office, I found a parking ticket on my car. Convinced that it was an unjust ticket, I used the phone to document my surroundings to prove why I shouldn’t have to pay the fine. The Los Angeles Parking Citations Bureau disagreed and I didn’t bother to appeal, but it nevertheless convinced me of the power of always having a camera in your pocket.
Today, I routinely use my camera phone to help me remember where I park my car. I take pictures of luggage tags, receipts and the price tags of items I’m thinking of buying. Of course, like most people, I also use my phone to photograph people, animals and scenery. Truth be told, the pictures I take with my smartphone often look just as good as the ones I take with my $1,000 camera.
Kahn’s current company, Santa Cruz-based Fullpower, develops cloud-based technology to power sleep tracking, analog smartwatches and other “Internet of Things” products.
Both my kids were born before Kahn built that camera phone so I wasn’t able to use a phone to transmit pictures of my kids’ births in near real time. But millions of fathers have since instantly shared pictures of their newborns to loved ones far and near. Happy 20th birthday to both the camera phone and Sophie Kahn.
Starting off with saying. “It was 20 years ago today,” immediately conjures up an image in one’s mind of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But this time, “Image” is the operative word, as exactly two decades ago today, the first camera-phone photo was taken and shared – a feat we certainly take for granted today.
Philippe Kahn, a mathematician, technology innovator and entrepreneur took the photo. It was a picture of the birth of his daughter Sophie, now a university student, and he shared it with 2000 friends and family members around the world.
Utilizar el móvil para enviar fotos es tan habitual que cuesta creer que hace unos años no fuera posible. Los momentos importantes, y los no tanto, ahora quedan inmortalizados a través de un sencillo gesto: desbloquear el smartphone, abrir la cámara, hacer la foto y subirla a redes sociales. Pero ¿quién fue el pionero?
20 lat temu Philippe i Sonia Kahn spędzili 18 godzin w szpitalu czekając na przyjście na świat swojej córki Sophie. Przyszły ojciec chciał zrobić zdjęcie swojej pierworodnej, jednak zamiast czekać na to, aż wróci do domu i pokaże swoją pociechę rodzinie i znajomym, postanowił rozpowszechnić zdjęcie jeszcze będąc w szpitalu. W 1997 roku nie było telefonów komórkowych z funkcją aparatu, więc ambitny wynalazca, postanowił takowy stworzyć.