What will the "smart camera" mean for Apple? Connect contributor Allan Hoffman imagines a few future scenarios.

There’s a looming dilemma for Apple, and also for photographers who are unabashed fans of the iPhone camera. 

The iPhone has transformed photography with its versatile ecosystem of photo editing and sharing apps and high-quality camera components, but a new development — the advent of so-called "smart cameras," with the same apps available on smartphones as well as connectivity capabilities — may threaten Apple’s role as a favorite choice of mobile photographers.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell: As the line blurs further between mobile phone and connected camera and even the most advanced professional cameras take on mobility features, will you be able to get Apple’s iOS — and all of your favorite iPhone photography apps, from AutoStitch to Hipstamatic — on your mobile camera device of the future? Or will you be forced to opt for an advanced camera (that is, one with an optical zoom lens and other controls desired by amateurs and pros) using a version of Google’s Android operating system (or an as-yet-uninvented app-friendly camera operating system)? 

It may not be a dilemma you need to confront next month, or even next year, but as apps make their way onto all cameras, and not just mobile ones — as they most certainly will — you’re likely to have to think about using an interface other than Apple’s. For iPhone devotees (and I count myself among them), that would mean buying all new apps — or Android versions of the ones you already own. It would mean managing your workflow with a different, unfamiliar system. It would mean learning a new mobile photography interface.

Here’s a look into my iPhone’s mix of photography apps (well, just a portion of them). 
I would not want to recreate this with another company’s operating system and interface. 

I’m not looking forward to this, but unless Apple surprises us — and I wouldn’t discount that (in fact, I’m rooting for it) — I’ll probably be in the market for an Android camera in the next two or three years. 

That’s because as apps move to traditional cameras, photographers are going to want — they’re going to expect — cameras with both apps and mobile connectivity. That’s already apparent in recently introduced Android-powered cameras such as the Nikon Coolpix S800c and the Samsung Galaxy Camera -- now even Polaroid has a model out. The trend is only going to accelerate in coming years.

The Samsung Galaxy Camera is powered by Android, as are similar cameras from both Nikon and Polaroid.

To put things another way: All photography will be mobile photography. All cameras will have Instagram, Photoshop Express and other apps. All cameras will let you blog and otherwise post your photos right from your camera, with a wi-fi, or mobile broadband, connection. Photographers have begun to expect mobility, and there’s no turning back.

Where will this leave Apple — and devotees of the iPhone camera? It’s not a question only for photography newbies. Fans of the iPhone camera include many professional photographers, including photojournalists whose work appears in The New York Times, Time magazine and other publications.

Photojournalist Ben Lowy shot this image with the iPhone camera and the Hipstamatic app.

What will Apple do?

Here are five scenarios:

1. Apple buys Nikon.

Well, maybe not Nikon, but a camera company — or one with camera technology — as a way to make a lasting mark in the world of photography. This, of course, seems highly unlikely. There’s no precedent for it in Apple’s recent history. Apple likes things simple, and it would be a big, complicated headache to deal with the “legacy” cameras and lenses under the umbrella of a Canon or Nikon.

If anything, Apple would be more likely to go after a smaller or niche player (Lytro? Leica?), but even that’s a stretch — and a considerable one. Then again, Apple’s chief designer, Jony Ive, is designing a one-of-a-kind Leica M. Perhaps there’s synergy in an acquisition. 

2. Apple gives the iPhone and iPod touch an optical zoom and other advanced photographic features.

It’s not out of the question that Apple would find a way to add a zoom lens to its flagship mobile devices. (A lot more control over shutter speed and aperture would help, too.) With these advances, fans of prosumer cameras might think twice about buying one, given what their phone would offer in terms of photographic capabilities. The only thing is, it’s not clear how Apple would integrate an optical zoom without increasing the heft of these devices — a development Apple surely wants to avoid.

3. Apple offers specialized versions of the iPhone and iPod touch — the iPhone Camera and the iPod touch Camera, let’s say.

This riff off the previous scenario would allow Apple to market a specialized — and pricier — version of the iPhone and iPod touch to consumers eager for a hyped-up camera on their mobile devices.

An Italian designer’s prototype for the iCam: what camera-centric iPhone or iPod touch might look like.

4. Apple develops an innovative memory card for cameras.

Imagine a new type of memory card — something like the Eye-Fi card with its ability to transfer photos straight to an iPhone — to make the experience of using another camera, such as a DSLR, almost akin to using the apps on your phone. With an iPhone in your pocket (or your backpack), the camera’s screen would mirror the iPhone screen. Or something like that. I’ll be honest: I have no idea how this would work. But a memory card, somehow, some way, could be a way to bring together the iPhone with cameras with more advanced features.

5. Apple introduces prosumer and DSLR cameras.

Yes, it’s not out of the question for Apple to develop its own cameras, running iOS. (Remember the Jony Ive and Leica connection; Steve Jobs loved photography, and so does Ive.)

Imagine a streamlined lineup: a prosumer model and a DSLR. Simple, yet new. Apple reinvented the phone, and now the camera. Of all of these Apple scenarios, this is my favorite — and also one that I think is actually within the realm of possibility.

The original Apple camera, the QuickTake, was 0.3 megapixels.

In fact, Apple tried this once before, in the early 1990s. The Apple QuickTake was one of the first digital cameras available to consumers in 1994. Two models were built by Kodak and a third by Fujifilm before the camera was discontinued in 1997. Today's Apple would likely go it alone in reinventing the camera, though it would probably only happen after the acquisition of a company (or several companies) with key photography know-how and technology.

What will other players do?

And what if Apple opts for none of the above? That’s certainly possible — even likely. In that case, the camera market would be left to the existing players, as well as new ones looking to make a mark in the age of smart cameras. Here are five possibilities for how that will shake out in the next five or 10 years:

1. Android becomes the standard OS for cameras.

I’d bet on this, though I wouldn’t like it. (Again, I don’t feel like abandoning that Apple ecosystem. It’s not perfect, but it’s my world, and I prefer to stick with it.) From the camera makers’ perspective, this would make sense: They would be able to retain some control, through customizations of Android, yet they would be able to offer photographers the camera apps available for Android. Could the growing number of Android-based connected cameras be the first indication that this trend has already begun?

2. Android becomes the leader in photography apps.

Well, that would happen as a result of the previous development. And the iPhone? New and innovative photography apps might end up on Android first, then on the iPhone — a reversal of the current situation. 

3. Google introduces a camera.

Why not? Google seems to have no fear in trending into new arenas, even if their efforts are abject failures. The company’s certainly shown an interest in photographers as it’s developed its Google+ networks. A Google camera doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. 

4. Microsoft makes a camera.

Microsoft recently introduced its first tablet, and it may be looking to expand its hardware business — even as it develops its operating system for mobile devices. The company could see a camera as a route to gaining traction for its mobile operating system.

5. Canon, Nikon and other camera makers develop specialized, app-friendly interfaces.

Camera interfaces can be awful, especially compared to those on phones. But it’s not out of the question that major camera makers will decide they should attempt to build their own app-friendly operating systems for cameras. That would fracture the market, and be a pain for consumers, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Such fracturing of camera interfaces and apps seems almost inevitable, at least for the next several years. When each camera interface was its own island (without apps or Internet connectivity), that was not a problem, or not a big one; it didn’t matter so much if the interface on your Canon G9 didn’t match the one on your Nikon D5100. Yet we’re entering a new era of connected, app-savvy cameras, and it will be a hassle to manage a different set of camera apps on your smartphone, on your prosumer camera, and on your DSLR. The likely solution? I’m guessing we’ll be seeing many, many Android cameras, but I’m also hoping — really hoping! — Apple makes a move and decides to reinvent photography with an Apple camera.

Allan Hoffman is the technology columnist for The Star-Ledger and the author of "Create Great iPhone Photos." He misses the smell of fixer in the darkroom, but he loves having a darkroom (and camera) in his pocket with the iPhone. He blogs about iPhone photography at What I See Now.