Sony to the digital imaging rescue?

Necessity may be the mother of invention – but the father is panic. And with the collapse of the digital camera business – DTC estimates global digital camera unit sales will drop 25 percent this year – all camera suppliers are foundering in full-fledged frenzy.

Most suppliers have reacted to the category flesh-eating bacteria that is the smartphone in two ways: cutting back on their point-and-shoot SKUs and beefing up their more profitable compact system camera collections.

Sony is applying both of these treatments, arguably more radically than anyone else. It has cut its point-and-shoot SKUs in half in the last year and has established itself as the CSC leader if not in quantity then certainly by quality, including last week’s intro of the compact 16.1 MP Wi-Fi/NFC-enabled NEX-5T ($700), Sony’s upgrade of its popular NEX-5R.

All well and good, but with fewer SKUs, the company is bleeding market share. So Sony has further turned its camera/camcorder panic into innovation with its new QX100 ($500) and QX10 ($250, pictured) lens cameras, announced officially today and scheduled to go on sale at the end of this month.

Sony QX 10

As bizarre as this bodyless smartphone accessory looks, it could reverse Sony’s digital camera fortunes as well as the course of the downward digital imaging sales for everyone else.

Digital disembodied

The QXs are self-contained cameras encased inside a lens – it sort of reminds me of the giant green floating disembodied not-behind-the-curtain Wizard of Oz head (or, for hipper audiences, Jambi from “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”). A cap with adjustable clamps designed to hold a smartphone in attached to create a Frankenstein camera with a huge viewing screen. The QX then pairs to the phone via Wi-Fi (via NFC, if your smartphone is so equipped).

Consumers then shoot photos or 1080p MPEG-4 (not AVCHD) video with their smartphones as usual – not via the crappy phone lens and chip, but via the QX lens and chip. Or, the lens camera can be viewed and controlled remotely using the soon-to-be-updated Sony iOS or Android PlayMemories v3.0.0 app for selfies or self-including group shots.

These truncated QX lens cameras aren’t short-sheeted technologically. The sophisticated QX100 is endowed with a D-SLR-like 1-inch 20.2 MP APS-C sensor inside a 28mm-100mm 3.6x optical zoom lens; the QX10 shoots 18.2 MP photos through a 25-250mm 10x optical zoom lens.

Photos are saved to both the QX in high-resolution and to your phone in share-friendly low resolution.

Once you get past the weirdness of the concept, it’s hard not to realize – what a great %$#&@ idea.

There’s always a but…

Two problems.

One, the QXs are too expensive, especially the QX100. A smartphone accessory, regardless of its sophistication, shouldn’t be costlier than the device it accessorizes, and certainly not more than twice the cost.

Plus, consumers can buy a complete Sony NEX-3n CSC for $450, with the same APS-C sensor specs, lens, screen and flash and everything, or its new entry-level Alpha a3000 D-SLR with a bundled 18-55mm lens, announced last week, for $400.

But you expect consumers to spend $500 on just a fancy lens?

Two, the QX concept is too generic and too easily copy-catted in cheaper form.

In whatever form or price, the addressable market for such an easily totable add-on is enormous. DTC forecasts about 900 million smartphones (with their barely adequate cameras) will be shipped this year. That’s a lot of potential frustrated smartphone shutterbugs.

Given the morbid camera marketplace, it’s a good bet every camera maker and cheap knock-off company will scramble to clone this clever QX concept, but at more popular prices and perhaps in phone-specific models (i.e. iPhone 5/5S, Samsung Galaxy S4), by CES in January.

Perhaps even Sony will see the error of its pricing ways and unveil its own sub-$100 QX model.

In any event, the QX could spark a whole new camera category and save Sony’s as well as everyone else’s standalone digital imaging business.