The fast growth of the digital camera market has ended, and it is now in sharp decline -- with implications for LED flash- and motor-drive IC vendors.
We know that the digital camera killed the traditional film-based photography business in just a few years, capped by the recent bankruptcy of venerable camera and film pioneer Kodak. But in an ironic twist, the digital camera business itself is now seeing its own fortunes shrinking fast.
It's not that digital photography is going away; it's that people are increasingly using their smartphones for photos, rather than distinct, single-purpose cameras. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, "The Point-and-Shoot Camera Faces Its Existential Moment," "The biggest declines [in digital-camera sales] have been in the point-and-shoot segment, which is estimated to fall to 80 million units this year, down from 132 million units three years ago." The article was based on data from market researcher IDC as well as the Camera and Imaging Products Association, a Tokyo-based industry group.
The basic point-and-shoot digital camera market has fallen on hard times due to pressure from smartphone-based imaging.
(Source: Canon USA, Inc).
There are implications for power-related ICs to this decline and the corresponding rise of the smartphone as the image-capture device of choice. Cameras have been a big market opportunity for power-driver ICs, primarily as drivers for the illumination flash and lens-zoom/focus motor. (Most of these cameras use an external charger for their battery, so that's a separate application situation.)
While Xenon-based tubes were the most common flash source up to a few years ago, improvements in LEDs and their many well-known virtues have made them the light source of choice, except in higher-end cameras. In addition, only LEDs are suitable for the continuous-on needs of video recording.
This flash-LED driver for still pictures has very different requirements than one used to drive LEDs in backlighting or area illumination. It's a low-repetition rate, short-duration, high-current-pulse output situation, rather than the relatively steady state role of most LED applications.
Nor does it need to support dimmable operation, as many other LED drivers do. But it is very much a non-trivial design; the late, sorely missed Jim Williams once mentioned to me how challenging the overall flash LED-driver circuit design was -- as are any designs with high-current, high-speed demands. (If you want to learn more about Xenon and LED flash driver circuits, two insightful design references are available from Linear Technology: "App Note 95: Simple Circuitry for Cellular Telephone/Camera Flash Illumination" and "Design Note 1009: Tiny, Efficient High Power LED Camera Flash Solutions for Cell Phone Applications.")
While smartphones also need drivers for their flash sources, the growth in that market opportunity is a separate story from the loss of the camera-only niche -- especially the point-and-shoot versions. Plus, smartphones don't have optical zoom, and thus don't need a motor-driver IC for their lens. While camera vendors are looking to increasingly focus on and develop the high-end camera market, including digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras -- both of which need flash and motor drivers -- those markets won’t make up for the loss of the high-volume low-end camera.
It's yet another iteration of the story that the electronics industry has had to increasingly deal with repeatedly, as mass-market consumer products have become the dominant and driving segment rather than mil/aero, industrial, and instrumentation markets: Some come into being, grow rapidly, then fade, all in just a few years. Think fax machines, dial-up modems, GPS units, and now, add digital cameras.