Last month, we covered Red’s announcement of its upcoming phone. Not only did the announcement drop out of the blue from a company known for making high-end cameras and projectors, it was staggeringly priced, at $ 1,195 for the aluminum version and $ 1,595 if you wanted it in titanium. That’s before we got to all the PR and marketingspeak about killer capabilities, a holographic display enabled by nanotechnology (seriously), and the promise this camera would be capable of seamlessly interacting with Red cameras as an interface and monitor.
This last point, at least, seems fully within the capabilities of modern software and hardware, though it’s impossible to know how good the implementation will be before we have hardware in-hand. Now, though, CNET has done some digging on the Android-powered Red Hydrogen and come up with some interesting details.
First, the Hydrogen’s design has scalloped edges to help you hold it — something we’d love to see Apple or Google try out, given how large modern phones have gotten. Other patent filings indicate the ridges are there to help users who are mounting additional lenses to the camera and carrying the extra bulk…which leads directly to the next point. Red wants to experiment with creating an ecosystem for interchangeable lenses, possibly even allowing for interchangeable camera sensors. This would be a significant feat, though there are risks as well (we’ll discuss those in a moment).
Red also has dreams of creating an ecosystem for add-ons like batteries, though we’re a bit more dubious on this front. To date, the prospects for modular phones have been dim, from Motorola’s experiments to Google’s ill-fated Project Ara. Even the 5.7-inch “4-View” holographic display has gotten some additional description, courtesy of Red founder Jim Jannard, who wrote in a forum post:
It [the holographic display] is incredible. It is multi-view (4-view) as compared to stereo 3D (2-view)… Our display is technology you haven’t seen before. It is not lenticular, which is inferior tech in every way, has been tried many times before and failed for good reason…
That’s still not exactly what we’d call a detailed analysis, but Red is clearly putting some weight behind this idea. Still, it faces a tough battle to bring the product to market.
When ‘Best-in-class’ Isn’t Good Enough
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Red is a well-known, well-respected camera manufacturer. If this was a post about how Red wanted to move into cell phone cameras, or take its idea for interchangeable lenses out and shop it around to a company like Samsung or Apple, I’d be 100% behind it. Great idea. But I’m uncertain Red can build a sustainable market around moves like this for two reasons.
First, phone cameras have been closing the gap between themselves and digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) for years now. While a good DSLR will still beat even the very best phone camera, phones have been nailing “good enough” for millions of people for years now, leading the point-and-shoot camera market to shrink to just 12 million units shipped for all of 2016, down from 120 million in 2008.
Elsewhere in his forum post, Jannard writes: “It also comes with… A selfie camera and a back camera. These cameras will not produce cinema quality images. No cell phone does. What we will have is a modular system that adds image quality well beyond any other camera short of our professional cameras.”
At first glance, that sounds great, until you consider that after ponying up $ 1,200 to $ 1,600 for the phone, you’re now going to have to pay for the lenses. I have no idea what Red will charge for these, but given its history of manufacturing premium hardware, it’s hard to imagine they’ll be cheap. If they aren’t, the overall buy-in cost will quickly reach a point where it would’ve been cheaper to buy a phone and a good DSLR for less than you’d pay for the Red Hydrogen + lenses. Red’s premium business model may do it few favors here, when you can buy a phone from Apple or Samsung that’s nearly as good by most people’s standards (I’m not claiming the average person has great standards, just observing a fact) or buy a high-end phone and a nice camera for the same amount of money.
Second, Red has no experience in offering phone OS and security updates and the sheer expense of the device means users will have different expectations from it than they might otherwise. Someone who is willing to pay $ 600 to $ 800 for a phone they trade in every 2-3 years may still balk if told they need to pay $ 1,500 or $ 2,000 for a device with the same expected lifetime.
Most Android OEMs aren’t very good at updates and tend to leave devices unsupported after one OS update, if they even get that. Google-branded products fare better in this regard, but it’s one area where Apple absolutely excels compared with what Android users are expected to put up with. As a means of illustration, my iPhone 5c is a 2013 phone built on 2012 hardware running iOS 10, which shipped three years after my phone was built and four years after its SoC was cutting-edge. iOS 11 is the first OS I can’t upgrade to, but if I’d opted for an iPhone 5s in 2013 instead of the cheaper 5c, I’d be on supported hardware at the same time my phone was turning four. By the time Apple presumably phased out 5s support with iOS 12, I’d have a five-year-old phone.
If Red wants to win customers for its enterprise, it needs to start releasing more info on how it intends to appeal to customers and how it will handle issues like device longevity and capability. Red has a long way to go to demonstrate it’s ready to be a player in this space. In my first post, I claimed this hardware flatly wasn’t happening. I’m still inclined to believe that, given the spectacular difficulty of creating what Red proposes, much less building the ecosystem around a modular phone with lens and camera sensor swaps.