Samsung’s Galaxy Camera Highlights Everything Wrong with Shared Data Plans

I have no idea how profitable a camera with a data plan will be. But either way, it's bad for innovation.

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Is the ability to upload and share your digital camera’s photos from anywhere worth $10 per month? AT&T thinks so.

That’s what it’ll cost, at minimum, to use Samsung’s Galaxy Camera on AT&T’s network. The camera, which launches on November 16, has 4G LTE connectivity, and runs a version of Google’s Android software, so it can directly share photos with apps like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

I like the concept, at least. Although smartphone cameras are often good enough for basic photos, their smaller image sensors and lack of optical zoom mean you’ll still want a proper digital camera in some situations. But once you’re accustomed to sharing photos instantly on your phone, it’s hard going back to a camera that can’t. The Galaxy Camera has a 4.8-inch touch display and offers the connectivity of  a smartphone combined with a 21x optical zoom lens and 16-megapixel backside illuminated CMOS sensor.

Here’s the bad news: To get 4G LTE connectivity, you’ll have to pay a monthly toll to AT&T, in addition to the $500 cost of the camera itself. If you’re on AT&T’s new Mobile Share plans, the Galaxy Camera costs $10 per month to connect, and taps into your existing bucket of data. For users without Mobile Share, data plans for the Galaxy Camera cost $15 per month for 250 MB, $30 per month for 3 GB or $50 per month for 5 GB.

Of course, it’s AT&T’s right to charge whatever the company thinks is fair, and I have no idea how profitable a camera with a data plan will be.

But either way, it’s bad for innovation. By tacking on a monthly charge for every connected device, no matter how much or how little it gets used, wireless carriers are holding back a future where all kinds of devices can have constant Internet access.

It’s funny, because AT&T seems to want that future, but only if customers are willing to pay through the nose for it. In an interview with All Things Digital in September, AT&T’s head of Emerging Devices, Glenn Lurie, said he’s trying to convince hardware makers to start including cellular connectivity in all their computing devices:

“Wi-Fi only is not enough,” he said. “We try to look for all the opportunities in the world to get the OEMs to understand that they shouldn’t be building two devices. They should be building one device with Wi-Fi and 4G. It’s more efficient for them than having two [product] lines.”

However, he admits there’s still a lot of education that needs to be done to convince customers that always-on connectivity is what they want, especially if it costs a couple hundred more dollars.

I submit that consumers are well-educated already. They know a raw deal when they see one, and the ability to upload the occasional digicam photo to Instagram isn’t worth $10 per month. For the same reason, the 3G version of Sony’s Playstation Vita gaming handheld is also a tough sell. Not only is the hardware $50 more expensive than the Wi-Fi version, but it requires yet another data plan.

It just doesn’t seem likely that “education” is the only issue here. When every connected device costs an extra $10 or more per month regardless of actual data use, there’s simply a limit to how many devices people will be willing to connect. We’ll have to decide what’s the  most worthy — the camera, the game device, the small tablet, the large tablet or the laptop. I doubt that many people will want to pay an extra $50 a month to connect them all.

That’s why shared data plans, as they exist today, are such a letdown. We could be connecting all kinds of devices, and not just the ones listed above, but other gadgets like smart watches, fitness trackers, stereos, GPS devices and even automobiles.

Instead, we have to rely on workarounds, such as using our phones as wireless hotspots, or tethering devices via Bluetooth. Or, we don’t connect our devices at all. With the Galaxy Camera, the worst-case scenario is that no one buys it, and another interesting idea disappears.

At the same time, that’s exactly what I’m hoping for. Only then will wireless carriers realize that new types of devices like the Galaxy Camera deserve a different approach: one that doesn’t scare people away, but rather encourages them to bring in more gadgets and use more data. That’s when connected devices and shared data plans will get really interesting.