Why the iPhone 7 Isn’t Going to Kill the Camera Industry

“Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead.” – Barney Gumble

There’s something about Apple and breathless hype that go together like, well, apples and pie. While the iPhone 7 launch saw its share of high profile poo-pooers, there was much more enthusiasm for what the new iPhone’s photo capabilities would bring to consumers and what they would mean for the already declining traditional digital still camera market.

Emblematic of the commentary was Om Malik, writing in the New Yorker, who argued that camera companies are “doomed” because of the improved quality of the new iPhones.

The iPhone 7, and particularly the 7 Plus, do represent a significant step forward in iPhone camera technology. Thanks to its dual camera system, the iPhone 7 Plus can deliver a very modest 2x optical zoom, allowing consumers to magnify a scene without degrading image quality (as happens in a digital zoom). The two lenses working in tandem with improved processing can also defocus the background to make foreground subjects pop (just how well and how realistic the defocusing is remains to be seen). Apple’s newest update to its iOS operating system will also enable iPhones to capture RAW images—an uncompressed image file that preserves more image data so that editing tools can make more dramatic alterations to an image after the fact.

Is this enough to send digital still camera sales (further) down the toilet? Not a chance.

To argue that the iPhone 7’s improved image quality is going to sink still camera sales misunderstands why still camera sales have declined in the smartphone era. It’s never been about image quality, but about a phone’s superior convenience and connectivity.

Once smartphone image quality reached a “good enough” threshold circa the iPhone 4, most consumers preferred to take casual snapshots with the device they were always carrying with them—the same device that could instantly share those images to social networks. That they could easily take a better photo with a traditional still camera didn’t matter: that traditional camera was bulkier and couldn’t upload to Facebook. It proved easier to leave the “big” camera behind on all but the most special occasions. Image quality was not, and is not, of paramount importance to most consumers.

It’s telling that the marquee features of the iPhone 7 Plus—a tiny optical zoom, support for RAW image files and the ability to blur the background—have been mainstays on even budget digital cameras for years. For less than the price of an out-of-contract iPhone 7, you can buy a digital camera with 30 times as much optical zoom and a higher resolution image sensor. Apple isn’t competing with digital camera makers (because they’ve won), they’re competing against other smartphone companies and themselves to ensure repeat customers.

Ultimately, smartphone image quality is constrained by physics—small image sensors and tiny lenses can’t capture as much light as large image sensors and large lenses. Clever computation can narrow the gap, but not close it. But that’s beside the point: for the majority of consumers, the gap is already narrow enough that splurging on a separate device to take pictures doesn’t make sense.

That’s not to say that still camera sales won’t continue to decline, even at the higher-end of the market. Indeed, 2016 has been a particularly challenging year for digital still camera sales due to a major supply disruption caused by the April earthquake in Japan, which damaged a Sony factory used to produce image sensors. Many manufacturers were forced to delay product shipments and couldn’t meet demand on products already on the market. As iPhone and smartphone quality continues to improve, those consumers who are willing to invest in a traditional still camera for the step-up in quality will likely hold out longer, lengthening the replacement cycle.

But, much like apples in a pie, the decline of the market was baked in irrespective of Apple’s camera improvements.