InformationWeek: Digital cameras are moving beyond specialty markets to become tools that can fuel business initiatives. Digital cameras are developing a new image. Not long ago, these products were typically considered either high-end specialty gear for photojournalism or graphics projects, or as low-end electronic toys for consumers. But a growing number of companies are looking at the hardware as tools that can propel business initiatives.

NFL Properties Inc., which represents the 31 teams in the National Football League, expects digital cameras to play an important part in the online photo gallery it's launching this fall for licensees, including Hallmark and Nike, that buy images to feature on products such as mugs and T-shirts. The service is being tested now and will have 20,000 to 25,000 photos online the first year-fewer than 5% taken with a digital camera.

But Paul Spinelli, director of photographic services for NFL Properties, says the company plans to add another 20,000 to 25,000 images each year to, and digital cameras will be used to take many of the new pictures. "You can post the images immediately after shooting [a game] without having to process and develop film," Spinelli says. That means NFL Properties can shave up to four weeks off the time it would normally take to make pictures from some games available for purchase. That's a plus in a project that was designed to speed the research and acquisition process for customers.

Self-Service Images

Before NFL Properties came up with the idea of the online service, customers would have to initiate photo requests via the telephone and employees would have to search through archives manually to select pictures that met a client's requirements. NFL Properties staff would then scan the photos for E-mail delivery or ship them overnight, and spend a lot of time following up with clients via phone and fax. With the new process, clients will be able to search and view offerings online and immediately purchase and download the images they want.

In a recent InfoTrends Research study, 59% of almost 600 digital-camera users said they rely on digital cameras for business use. Business interest in these devices is helping to expand the market almost fourfold-to 5 million units in 2002, compared with 1.3 million units in 1998.

What's driving businesses to embrace filmless cameras for new efforts? For one thing, the quality of hardware has improved, says Steve Hoffenberg, director of digital photography at Lyra Research. NFL Properties is using a handful of $15,000 Canon EOS D2000 professional digital cameras, which feature a high-quality 2 million pixel charge-coupled device imaging sensor and sophisticated focusing and metering technologies. One of the reasons NFL Properties is expanding its use of digital cameras, Spinelli says, is because the Canon camera now offers the high-quality resolution it needs for its business application.

He says he expects advances in digital-camera quality will account for a tenfold increase each year in the number of digital photos posts. "The more the technology grows, the frame capture and image quality will rival traditional cameras," Spinelli says.

Meanwhile, prices for more general-purpose digital cameras have dropped in recent years, as they've increased in overall quality. A 2-megapixel (1,800-by-1,200-pixel resolution) digital camera today has five times the resolution of a 640-by-480-pixel VGA camera, which was the digital standard two years ago, Hoffenberg says. Such cameras for the general user market are typically priced starting at less than $1,000. And prices for megapixel (1,280-by-960-pixel resolution) digital cameras for general business use have fallen to as low as $400 to $900.

Card Party

Other technology advances include higher-capacity choices in removable memory cards for storing images, from PC Cards to SmartMedia to CompactFlash cards that can store up to 64 Mbytes worth of pictures. Removing a memory card from a digital camera and popping it into a compatible reader on a notebook or PC also provides an easier way of transferring images than using a slow and cumbersome serial cable connection. The Sony Mavica MVC-FD81 even lets users store 16 high-resolution images directly onto a standard diskette, which they can then transfer to their PC's floppy-disk drive.

PetSmart Inc., a Phoenix company that operates more than 500 stores and a direct-mail catalog selling pet-related products, uses Mavica MVC-FD81 digital cameras to help get some product lines to market in record time-30 days, instead of two to three months. Marcia Meyer, president of PetSmart International Supply Co., a division of the $2.1 billion concern, says the cameras aid in streamlining communications with overseas suppliers from more than 20 countries.

Rather than sending suppliers' samples of fabric colors, styles, or details to use in a new product, buyers can snap digital pictures of items that inspire them and upload the JPEG images stored on the diskette to suppliers using QCS Corp.'s catalog and transaction Internet service. Similarly, suppliers can send PetSmart digital photos of the works-in-progress for approval.

Meyer says the ability to collaborate electronically on these designs has not only improved time to market for products since the project began 18 months ago, but has also saved the company money on overseas sales trips. The five cameras, which can take images at a resolution up to 1,024 by 768 pixels, represent an investment of just $4,500.

"A great retailer responds to what customers want," Meyer says. "We now have a better set of criteria in how we select products and create packaging. We've become more sophisticated in how we make decisions about products."

Spinelli of NFL Properties also sees an opportunity to use digital cameras to bring consumer products to market more quickly, especially for once-a-year events such as the Super Bowl. Using digital cameras could let NFL Properties release a Super Bowl commemorative book at least a day earlier than usual, for example. "The interest is huge before the game. You have a limited time frame to excite someone after a game," Spinelli says. "Digital cameras can get to print more quickly. That's the key to profitability."