Comdex Report: Gates Says Future of Photos Is Online

LAS VEGAS--We're headed for a future in which people will view, share, and even edit art and photographic images through a Web browser. That was the message of ImageScape 99, a Comdex trade show press event that featured a keynote speech by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. Gates also heads Corbis, which claims to be the world's largest collection of downloadable digital photos and fine art.

At present, Gates said, the Web is still too slow to be a mass medium for image exchange. But as pipelines get faster over the next few years, he said, "we won't have to discuss technical limitations at all." Today's huge hard disk capacities, he said, make it feasible to store thousands of photos for quick access, and improvements in color ink-jet technology are making it possible to produce digital prints that rival the quality of traditional prints from photo labs.

Gates discussed the digital imaging system he uses in his own mansion, where flat-panel displays hang on the wall much like paintings. Gates can program the system to display any image from the Corbis collection--which includes the renowned Bettman Archive of fine art--on any of the displays. At present, the high cost of flat-panel displays makes such a system prohibitively expensive, but Gates predicted that we'll soon be able to buy monitors with higher resolution than current models for just a few hundred dollars. "My house is a glimpse of the future," he said.

One issue that online photo sites will have to deal with, Gates said, is copyright protection. Digital watermarking technology makes it possible to identify the originator of an image, but does not prevent unauthorized use of photos. He said that online image providers should take a lesson from the music industry, which failed to address the issues surrounding digital distribution until it was forced to do so by the emergence of MP3.

Following Gates' presentation, a panel of representatives from digital imaging companies held a freewheeling discussion of issues surrounding online photo distribution. All agreed that online photo sites--in which consumers can post digital images for viewing by others--are becoming increasingly popular. However, they disagreed on which kinds of sites are best positioned to draw users who want to share photos.

Several said that dedicated photo sites will be the most popular, but Don Strickland, CEO of PictureWorks, said that AOL, Yahoo, and other big portals have an advantage because they're in the best position to deliver the sense of community that consumers want. Intel's Lorie Wigle said that she expects image galleries to appear on topic-specific Web sites. For example, a cake-decorating Web site might have a section devoted to cake photos submitted by users.

Panelists agreed that online photo sites will not eliminate print. "People like to see pictures online, but they want prints too," said Bruce Foss of Kodak. Kodak, he added, is making it easier for consumers to order photo prints from the Web.

Consumers can not only post photos on the Web; in some cases, they can also use tools on a Web site to modify images. For example, Adobe offers a Web-based utility for optimizing Web graphics and plans to provide other image-editing aids in the future. However, Adobe Bruce Chizen asserted that online image-editing tools will not replace boxed software, at least for professional users. He noted that editing a 100MB image, even with a fast T1 line, would be "a painful process."

During the event, 40 companies, including Adobe, Kodak, Olympus, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard, showed imaging-related products. One exhibitor, Digital Intelligence, demonstrated image-editing technology called Picture IQ that can be integrated into Web servers, game consoles, and set-top boxes.

Sega has licensed Picture IQ for use in its Dreamcast console, and Corbis has licensed the technology for use on its Web site. Picture IQ, which is based on the core imaging features in Adobe Photoshop, includes such functions as red-eye removal, color/brightness adjustment, and filter effects.

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