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July 9, 2001

LightSurf Piggybacks a Tiny Camera on a Cell Phone


For millions of Americans today, the cellular phone is simply a convenient way to make calls on the go. But if Philippe Kahn's vision plays out, consumers will soon be using their cell phones to take digital photographs that can be instantly transmitted over wireless networks to other cell phones.

Mr. Kahn, a well-known technology entrepreneur whose first company was for a time the third-largest software company in the world, came up with the idea for his technology — ePhotos — when he was assisting with the birth of his daughter, Sophie, four years ago. Frustrated by his inability to easily and quickly transmit photos from the hospital to family members, Mr. Kahn and his wife, Sonia Lee, determined they would some day bring such a capability to market.

These days, LightSurf, the company Mr. Kahn founded as a result of his frustration, is beginning to market the wireless technology he and his company of 100 employees have spent the last few years developing.

"Hey, a picture is worth a thousand words," he said, adding that his technology offers the best of both worlds: Cell phone users will be able to attach personal voice messages to the photos they send.

Thor Swift for The New York Times
Philippe Kahn of LightSurf is developing technology to send pictures, with voice attachments, from wireless phones to other phones, PC's or handheld devices.

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Already, LightSurf technology is at the core of a Kodak digital photography system installed in several large drugstore chains, including CVS and Rite-Aid. In that system, called the Kodak Picture Center, customers can have their film digitized, stored on a server and accessed via the Web. Eventually, customers will be able to access those photos via their cell phones as well.

In the LightSurf scenario, a cellular phone user can attach a tiny digital camera to the phone — or eventually be able to use one of several phones under development that have a camera built in. (Some digital cameras will have wireless modems built into them as well, Mr. Kahn said.) The system is designed to let the sender add a voice notation to the photo.

Once the user snaps a shot, the phone will transmit the photo over the user's cellular network, where it will pass through the LightSurf server. Key to the process is an acceleration technique meant to drastically reduce the time such a transmission takes. And if the connection gets dropped during transmission, there is a recovery system that is supposed to enable transmission to pick up where it left off.

LightSurf's technology is designed to adapt the photo to the receiving device, which might be a PC or a handheld computer, or another cell phone. The process of sending a photo takes less than a minute, and the cost is 20 to 25 cents a shot, Mr. Kahn says.

The question, of course, is just what the demand will be for exchanging tiny photos from one cell phone to another. Certainly, consumers are already becoming accustomed to doing more with their cell phones than simply make calls, like linking to the Internet to see sports scores or retrieve stock quotes. And in Japan, where wireless imaging is more advanced and color-screen cell phones are already popular, a wireless Internet service from NTT DoCoMo is gaining steam.

Alexis Gerard, editor of The Future Image Report, says he thinks there is a latent demand for ePhotos in the United States. But analysts say that success depends one factor: that the technology be easy to use. "Ninety-nine percent of the time with technological breakthroughs, people hadn't been asking for it," Mr. Gerard said. ePhoto, he predicts, could be one of those breakthroughs.

Mr. Kahn says that at about 25 cents a photo he expects demand for ePhotos to come from both consumers and businesses. Far-flung grandparents could see instant snapshots of newborns and graduation ceremonies. People who had just been in an auto accident could transmit instant photos directly to their insurance companies. Construction site managers might transmit instant photos of projects for approval.

Other software companies are working on various pieces of the same puzzle, and several camera makers have announced digital camera add-ons for cell phones and handhelds, like Palm Pilots. ActivePhoto, for example, has developed an application that enables digital cameras to transmit images wirelessly to PC's; Kemper Insurance is already using the system on a limited basis to streamline the claims process.

LightSurf, however, is the only one so far trying to work closely with telecommunications carriers to create an entire support structure for sharing images wirelessly, according to Lia Schubert, an industry analyst with the InfoTrends Research Corporation.

"LightSurf has a fairly unique position in that it covers the whole value chain," said Mr. Gerard, of Future Image.

Wireless image-sharing is proving slow to evolve, however, because so much of it depends on partnerships between industry giants, including cellular phone makers and wireless carriers, Ms. Schubert says. But by early next year, all the pieces could be in place to make sharing ePhotos a relatively simple matter — particularly with the help of a recently announced wireless standard announced recently by Qualcomm, called BREW. The arrival of the standard, Mr. Kahn says, is making it much easier for cellular phone makers to add new capabilities to their handsets.

So far, Mr. Kahn and his wife are the sole investors in LightSurf. They have financed the company from the sale of their last venture, Starfish Software, to Motorola three years ago for $254 million. Starfish focused on software for synchronizing data between wireless devices and PC's. But Mr. Kahn's role in the software industry goes back much further than that.

After emigrating from France in 1982 as a young programmer, Mr. Kahn founded Borland Software, and built it into a software powerhouse, that produced enormously popular programs like Borland Pascal, a toolkit for programmers, and Quattro, a PC spreadsheet program. But like many other software companies of that era, Borland was outgunned by Microsoft; in 1995, with Borland's stock tanking, Mr. Kahn was ousted by the board of directors. Borland's main product these days is software that links older corporate computer systems with newer Internet technology.

Today, Mr. Kahn remains chief executive of Motorola's Starfish. But he devotes his time to LightSurf, whose headquarters are in Santa Cruz, Calif., a beach community near Silicon Valley — only a few miles from Borland's former headquarters.

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