Digital Cameras, BASIC, and Visicalc

June 14th, 2003

We’ve been using regular film cameras for many years. About a year ago, realizing that we’d have to break down and buy a digital camera someday, I decided to cut my teeth on something old and cheap, so I bought one on eBay. It wasn’t very good: only 640 x 480 resolution. But the real problem was twofold. First, it downloaded to the computer through the RS-232 port at 9600 baud. At that speed, a typical picture takes 20 or 30 seconds to download. A bunch of pictures took several minutes. Worse, it had no built-in LCD, so you couldn’t see the results of your shot immediately. You took your shots, then sometime later downloaded them to the computer where you could see them at last. Mind you, this was still considerably faster than waiting for the film to be developed, but it was still damn slow. As a result, we rarely used our cheap old digital camera.

Based on our experiences with that camera, as well as conversations with friends and consultation with Consumer Reports, we finally picked out a digital camera that looked solid. It has 3 megapixels of resolution, 6X optical zoom, a USB port, storage for a hundred pictures, and of course an LCD on the back. And we started playing with it.

Wow, this thing is MUCH better than anything else we have ever used! It’s far superior to a film camera. You take the picture and then you immediately see how it came out. If you don’t like the shot, you delete it and take another. In consequence, we take more pictures because we can take better pictures.

Here’s the interesting part: I realized this morning that the benefit of the digital camera is exactly the same benefit that was offered by BASIC, by word processors, and by VisiCalc: much faster interactivity.
Consider BASIC, for example. Before BASIC, all programming was done in batch mode. You wrote up your program, punched it into cards, and submitted your program to the computer center. They ran your program and gave it back to you a few hours later with the printed output. You studied the output and then ran it again. It was an iterative process with a cycle time of at least an hour. But BASIC changed all that. You typed in your program, then ran it. The results came back immediately. If it was wrong, you fixed it right then and there. The iterative process was vastly accelerated. Millions of programmers learned their craft in BASIC, because it was so much more efficient than batch programming.

Or take word processing as another example. It’s difficult for youngsters to realize just how hard it was to produce a document before word processors came along. It was a slow and clumsy process. With a typewriter it was very tedious. Typically you wrote everything down longhand before typing, then used whiteout to fix the mistakes. A step forward came with text processors that embedded formatting commands into the text stream. You typed up your document in plain text, but then you invoked some special "display" command that would interpret all the formatting commands and voila, there was your document all nicely formatted. But what made word processing universal was MacWrite with its WYSIWYG processing. You got instant feedback: you could see the document as it would be formatted while you worked. The WYSIWYG style of word processing has rendered obsolete all previous forms of word processing because its feedback loop is instantaneous.
And then there’s the spreadsheet. Currently, Microsoft Excel rules the roost, but the first interactive spreadsheet was VisiCalc. No single program did more to popularize microcomputers than VisiCalc. And the revolutionary nature of VisiCalc lay in one simple trick: it reduced the cycle time of financial calculations to a few seconds, as opposed to several minutes or even hours. By greatly accelerating the iterative cycle of calculations, spreadsheets revolutionized the world.

And so we come to digital cameras, and the conclusion we draw from this is inevitable: digital cameras will render film cameras obsolete. The old pros may sniff at the digital cameras and dismiss them as toys, but within twenty years (and probably much sooner than that), film cameras will be antiques. The old pros sniffed at BASIC, they sniffed at MacWrite, and they sniffed at Visicalc. They harped on the feature-weakness of the new kids on the block, and they completely missed the importance of the interactivity. The same thing is going on with digital cameras just now. And the end result will be the same. If you’re the betting type, bet all your money AGAINST film cameras -- they’re doomed.