Does The Internet Have An Image Problem? Maybe

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then we are living in the most verbose of times. On the average day, more photos will be taken during that 24 hour period than any other 24-hour period before.  The numbers, into which will delve a little bit deeper later on in this paper, are truly staggering. In the past decade, the way we think about photography is fundamentally changed.

From being a private repository of memories, to being a platform to share and broadcast life events, our photo libraries have turned themselves literally inside out. Additionally, rather than store hundreds or thousands of images in physical media like paper or celluloid, billions and billions of photos can be stored “in the cloud”. To do a little thought experiment, let us see just how much space one day’s worth of activity on Instagram – not even the most trafficked photography application – would take up. Every second, approximately 2,200 photos are uploaded to the service, which is approximately 190 million photos per day. To determine the volume of physical images, we’ll use standard size Polaroid paper, because not only did Instagram name itself partially after “instant cameras,” the company modeled its first logo after a Polaroid camera. (Lang) The dimensions of a Polaroid Type 600 picture is 8.89 x 10.8 centimeters, and we can assume a photo’s thickness is approximately .21 millimeters, which is the average for modern photo paper. If one Polaroid photo has a volume of 2.02 centimeters, then the volume of one day’s worth of Instagram activity is equal to approximately 383 cubic meters worth of Polaroid pictures. One week’s worth of Instagram activity would overflow an olympic sized swimming pool. Put slightly differently, 120,000 gallons of Polaroids are uploaded to Instagram every day.

Images augment the online experience, giving users the ability to get a richer sense of what it is they are reading, shopping for, or interacting with. Until augmented and virtual reality gain much wider adoption, still and moving images are the closest the average internet user is going to come to being able to interact with the world they view through the screen. In a survey the E-Tailing Group conducted, customers were about the most important considerations they take into account when buying online. Laura Freedman, president of the E-Tailing group, presented her findings at the Internet Retailer Conference in 2012. High image quality was cited by 75% of respondents as the second most important factor, right behind price at 80%. There are other considerations related to imagery, such as the ability to see the selected product in the chosen color (68%), alternate views of the selected item (66%) and a high quality zoom view of the product (61%) ranked far above factors like the ability to pick up the product at a local store (33%) or product comparisons (52%). It is this trend toward a more spontaneous, image-centric shopping experience that companies like Pinterest are betting on with the integration of “buy” buttons next to items on users’ “pin boards”.

In this paper we hope to synthesize some of the information we’ve gathered about the emergent imaging revolution. In the first section, we will explore the background and current state of the photography boom brought about by the mass proliferation of camera phones. Finally, we will explore some emerging phenomena in new digital media, and suggest that the increased consumption of visual media is the driving force behind the push to build out network capacity across all layers of the Internet. In doing so, we hope to explore the power of pictures and the reconfiguration of web content from text to images.

The digital camera found its “killer app” in the mobile Internet and connected devices. Since J-Phone launched the J-SH04 in November, 2000 to the Japanese market, the camera became the driving force behind mobile phone sales.

The J-SH04, produced by Sharp, was the first mobile phone to have a color display (capable of producing 256 colors) and a deeply integrated digital camera. The fundamental innovation of the J-SH04 was the integration of its camera and photo library into the messaging system, which allowed users to send and receive pictures over mobile data networks. Although it is obvious and such a humdrum notion today, the ability for a user to share what she was seeing with her friends and family was truly revolutionary at the time. It was an idea that spread quickly. J-Phone’s Sha-Mail multimedia messaging (MMS) network grew from zero to ten-million users from its launch in November, 2000 through March, 2003. (Daniel Ralph and Paul Graham, MMS: Technology, Usage, and Business Models)

The time between 2000 and 2003 was one of massive technical innovation in mobile phones and mobile computing. The word “smartphone” was first used in 2000 to describe the Ericsson R380, the first phone with an “open” operating system that other vendors could use. Other notable “firsts” from that time include: the Samsung SPH-M100, also released in 2000, the first to include a built-in MP3 player; the Samsung SCH-N300, the first commercial A-GPS device; and the Blackberry 957 Internet edition, released in 2001, the mobile phone that made push email “a thing” for mobile phones. Just a few years later, the Apple iPhone was the first phone to deliver a compelling experience out of the mobile internet.

In 2003, when smartphones were just beginning to take off in markets outside Japan, research firm Canalys released a report crowning the camera the smartphone’s killer app. From 2002 to 2003, smartphone sales increased by 250%, and much of those sales were spurred on by consumers upgrading their old feature phones to smartphones with integrated cameras. (Kotadia) In 2003, 70% of the UK’s population had a mobile phone (feature phones and smartphones included). At the end of March 2014, 68% of the UK had a smartphone. Other markets have higher rates of smartphone penetration: Spain is at 70%, Hong Kong at 72%, Sweden at 75%, while Singapore leads at 85% smartphone penetration. (Teller) Globally, according to Mary Meeker’s annual KPCB Internet Trends Report for 2015, there are some 2.1 billion smartphones connected globally. 2015 is the first time where the majority of time (51%) spent engaging with digital media is on mobile, rather than desktop or tablet computing platforms. (Meeker)

There are several other interesting facts and figures about the development of mobile-integrated digital photography.

Camera phone resolution vastly outstripped the rate of growth one might expect from Moore’s Law’s 2-year doubling time. Resolution on camera phones doubled every year before reaching its current equilibrium point. From the J-SH04’s 110,000 pixel camera to the Samsung B600’s first-ever 10-megapixel camera phone in November 2006, resolution increased some 90x in just six years. Although there are outliers today – like the Nokia Lumia 1020’s 41-megapixel camera phone announced in July 2013 – camera phones’ resolution have settled in a range between eight and ten megapixels, primarily because modern camera phones are used as platforms for communication and sharing, rather than tools for recording the highest-fidelity images (which is the use case of DSLRs and high-end point-and-shoots). This being said, a ten megapixel camera phone takes higher-resolution photos than the average film camera.

The proliferation of cameras has also increased tremendously since 2000. Andreessen Horowitz partner and researcher Benedict Evans established that 1999 was the peak of the film camera business. In an article from July 2014, Evans cites Kodak’s 2000 annual report, which estimates that the world took approximately eighty billion photos in 1999, and bought nearly seventy million cameras. To put that in perspective, just 5% of the 1.8 billion cameras sold to consumers (excluding webcams and security cameras) were traditional stand-alone units. (Evans) The other 95% are integrated into phones, according to influential mobile analyst Tomi Ahonhen. At the beginning of 2015, approximately 2.1 billion iOS and Android smartphones in active use, and there are an additional 4 billion mobile phones besides. According to Evans’s estimate, there are between 3 and 3.5 billion camera phones in circulation, and that number continues to rise. (Anhonen) The number of devices sold in 2014 which can take pictures is twenty times higher than sales in 1999. (Evans)

If the number of cameras in circulation has increased so significantly, so too has the number of photos taken. There are some truly mind-boggling statistics floating around. The number of “selfies” (self-portraits, usually taken by the subject using either an outstretched arm or, most annoyingly, a “selfie stick”) taken is truly impressive. At Google I/O in 2014, Google senior vice president of Chrome and Android Sundar Pichai announced that 92 million selfies were taken per day on Android phones around the world. (Google I/O Keynote) Considering that the Android OS accounts for 78% of the global install base, an average of 118 million selfies were taken per day across mobile operating systems in 2014. Extrapolating that out to one year results in a number that feels shockingly low given the next number we want to discuss. Forty three billion selfies in 2014 is a small number.

When examining estimates of the total number of photos taken in 2014, we use Tomi Ahonen’s model once again. He calculates the global install base of operational cameras is 5.8 billion units, but only 4 billion are in use today. Of those 4 billion cameras in use, 440 million (11%) are stand-alone “traditional” digital cameras and 3.56 billion (89%) are integrated into cameraphones. According to Ahonen’s survey data, the average stand-alone digital camera user took 375 pictures in 2014, while the average cameraphone user took 259 pictures. When multiplied across the total user bases, that produces around 1 trillion photos taken in 2014 by digital camera owners. (Ahonen) Benedict Evans cites even larger numbers. According to his numbers, just the number of photos shared on Facebook, WhatsApp and Snapchat alone accounts for 550 billion photos per year, and that number is growing fast. “Total sharing across all social networks, if we include Wechat and other platforms, is certain to be over 1 trillion this year – around 1.5 per smartphone per day. How many are taken in total? Several times that, certainly, but there’s no real way to know – it could be [sic] 1tr, or 5tr, or 10tr.” (Evans) If by the end of 2014 humanity has taken a total of 5.7 trillion photos since the invention of the camera (Ahonen), it is entirely possible that 2015 will see more photos taken than have ever existed before, both on digital and on film. (Evans) If that is true, and 5.7 trillion photos are taken this year, then approximately 685 photos will be taken for every person alive on the planet in 2015.

It is very difficult to overstate just how shocking some of these numbers are to us. The rate of change in the photography category, both in terms of hardware, software, and how this tremendous rate of change is driving development of mobile internet infrastructure boggles the mind. Photography is experiencing a boom through the proliferation of mobile connectivity not unlike the printed word did with the printing press, or the boom in music spurred on by the transistor. (Evans) If the medium is the message, then we’ve heard loud and clear that images are rapidly becoming the substrate of communication.

As we’ve established in previous sections, we’re currently experiencing an unprecedented level of photo-taking and photo-sharing activity. Besides photos, though, the past few years have also seen an explosion in activity and innovation in other visual media.

Video streaming services like Netflix and video hosting and sharing sites like Youtube account for a huge share of North American Internet traffic. According to a report released by Sandvine, Inc, a Canadian networking services company, “Real Time Entertainment” – streaming video from sites like Netflix, Youtube, Amazon Prime Video, etc – accounts for 64.54% of aggregate network load during peak periods. (Sandvine Report) Netflix alone accounts for 36.5% of all downstream traffic during these peak periods, while services like Youtube (15.56%), iTunes (3.36%), Amazon Video (1.97%) and Hulu (1.91%) lag far behind.

On mobile data networks, according to the same report, social networking applications account for 23.71% of upload traffic, and 22.39% of download traffic at peak hours. It comes as no surprise that the most data-intensive applications are also the ones which convey the most visual media. Facebook accounts for 18.78% of all upload traffic. Dedicated photo sharing apps like Snapchat (2.56%) and Instagram (2.39%) still account for an impressive amount of data use, especially considering that both apps compress raw images before uploading them to their servers.

Interestingly, in the last year, Snapchat eclipsed other messaging applications which rely more heavily on text as the communication medium, like WhatsApp, at least in terms of the data load they impose on the network. This signals a shift toward increasing utilization of images as a medium of communication. (Sandvine) To that end, new mobile video sharing applications have created a novel way to interact in real time.

The rise of live video broadcasting applications like Meerkat and Twitter-owned Periscope was enabled by the proliferation of high speed mobile internet and the development of new codecs which allows video to be broadcast live from mobile phones without much loss in quality. This live mobile broadcasting mechanism is not only very new – Meerkat launched February 27, 2015 (Fiegerman) and Twitter acquired Periscope in January for $100M and launched the app on March 26th – but also a major departure from the way video was experienced on mobile devices, both from the perspective of the content creator and the consumer. Rather than passively view videos depicting events that happened in the past, Meerkat and Periscope users can broadcast streaming video from their phones, and viewers can interact with the broadcaster through messages and gestures in real time. Again, this would not have been possible just a couple of years ago when fast wireless networks with stable synchronous connections were few and far between.

To that end, just as media like photography and streaming video are experiencing jaw dropping growth, the Internet must grow to accommodate the onslaught. According to a report released by Cisco, global internet grew from 100 gigabytes per day in 1992 to 100 gigabytes per second in 2002, around the time the first Internet connected mobile devices came to market. By 2014, internet traffic grew to 16,144 gigabytes per second, and is estimated to increase to 51,794 gigabytes per second by 2019. To put that in more manageable terms, global per capita internet use is expected to rise from 8 GB to 22 GB per month (a 375% increase) in just five years. (Cisco)

Much of the infrastructural development effort will focus on mobile and networks. By 2019, wired internet devices will account for just 19% of global traffic, whereas 81% of the traffic is anticipated to come from Wi-Fi and mobile data networks. Globally, Cisco estimates that by 2018 there will be 341 million public Wi-FI hotspots available, up from 48 million hotspots in 2014. As far as mobile data network usage, Cisco anticipates a 10-fold increase in use between 2014 and 2019. By 2019, it is anticipated that 24.3 exabytes (or 24,300,000 terabytes) of data will fly through the air per month, and global smartphone data speed is expected to increase by almost 80%, from 6,097 kilobits per second in 2014 to 10,403 kilobits per second in 2019.

To conclude, we have given just a small peek into an emergent phenomenon. The rapid adoption of internet-connected camera phones lead to the rapid adoption of photography as the social medium of choice. Video – mobile, live streaming, broadcast and narrowcast – is expected to grow in popularity and importance as new network infrastructure comes online to support it. In short, visual media is not only remaking the way we communicate in real time and shape identity over longer stretches, visual media is forcing the hand of infrastructure providers to expand network capacity. There is no telling what the Internet is going to look like five years from now, but it is safe to say it will be colorful.


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Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

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