March 5, 2004

Linux digital camera compatibility is no longer an issue

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

I just bought a new digital camera, and before I bought it I didn't bother to check whether it was a Linux-compatible model. I didn't care. I knew that I would have no trouble getting its output into my computer with a USB cardreader. USB cardreaders have effectively made almost all digital cameras Linux-compatible.My new camera -- although its exact make and model is unimportant for the purposes of this article -- is a Nikon Coolpix 4300 I got from a chain electronics store for about 60% of its theoretical retail price. And like most people who want to take a lot of pictures at high resolution, I immediately bought more memory than was furnished with the camera, in this case a 128 MB CompactFlash card.

Then I bought a $19.99 SanDisk CompactFlash USB cardreader. I plugged it into my computer, and Mepis Linux immediately detected the CompactFlash card. No hassle, no thinking, no setup required. Simple plug and play all the way.

I already had an HP camera that used Secure Digital media, along with a cardreader for that format. While I would have preferred a new camera that also used SD memory, I decided the overall value of the one I chose justified buying another memory card and reader.

With this addition to my collection I am now able to read and save to every widely-marketed flash memory format including -- through a "multiple format" USB reader a friend gave me a few months ago -- Sony's memory sticks, which as far as I know work only with Sony products.

I can't vouch for Sony memory stick use with Linux from personal experience, but I can vouch for the other major flash memory formats. I have not had any trouble using any of them with Linux on any of the three computers I own, all of which have USB ports.

Back in the day -- was it really only two years ago? -- I uploaded pictures from an Olympus camera to my computer through a serial cable and used gPhoto to read those pictures. It was a slow process, and I had to have the camera on to do it.

Now I don't even have gPhoto installed, even though it supports my Nikon (in PTP mode, at least). I'm not knocking gPhoto; it's a great program, it served me well when I needed it, and I'm sure it serves many others just as well to this day.

The fact that I can now use a standard USB reader to get photos into my computer better, faster, and cheaper than I could with specialized software designed to work with individual camera manufacturers' protocols is a tribute to the power of industry-wide standards. As long as a company's hardware and software conforms to the USB mass storage standard, no one needs to worry about whether their products will work -- and the device manufacturers aren't forced to pay developers to come up with new software to run each new product they design, not to mention writing different versions of that software for each operating system (including the many flavors of Windows) their customers might want to use, which cuts development costs and time-to-market, which results in lower prices and more choices for consumers, which results in more sales. Everybody wins. Yay!

Another standard I mentioned above -- PTP, or Photo Transfer Protocol -- is making life easier for gPhoto developers and camera manufacturers. Once again, instead of everyone being forced to develop specific software for each camera (and each operating system), everyone works within an industry-wide standards framework, which makes life much easier for both vendors and consumers.

There will always be a few companies that decide not to conform to industry standards. That's their choice. Of course, some of us may choose not to buy products that don't conform to industry standards, which means companies that choose to go their own way instead of working with the rest of the world may eventually find themselves with unsalable products on their hands.

To bring this all back home, I'm glad I can go into an electronics or photo store and pick out a camera purely on the basis of its features and value, without worrying about whether it's compatible with my chosen operating system -- not to mention the fact that if don't have my own computer handy, I can plug my USB cardreader into a friend's Mac or Windows computer and expect it to work with just as little hassle as it gives me in Linux.

This is a wonderful state of affairs. I wish it applied to all computers and peripheral devices. Perhaps, one day, it will.


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