The panic has amped up just a little bit as Christmas gets closer and I’m far, far away from completing my shopping. So I do browse the online sale emails and click like a drowning swimmer reaching for a life preserver on those email promos that promise mind-blowing sales but don’t tell you exactly what’s on sale.
It was an Amazon email that got me to click for “12 Days of Deals.” And that’s when I saw it. A deal for an $85 digital photo frame.
I blinked. I squinted. I adjusted the settings on my computer monitor. Was I seeing that right? Digital picture frames, which seemed like they might be the future of displaying photos in the home back in, oh, say 2009, are still a thing?
I checked into the matter. It turns out my first instinct was right. They are no longer a thing, as confirmed by a Consumers Digest article from last year (“Digital Photo Frames: Fading from View”) that succinctly nailed the coffin on a technology that today sounds more like a punchline than a good gift idea.
What happened? Why did this once-promising technology turn into a bargain-bin relic?
I have some thoughts:Digital photo frames were ahead of their time. People were using digital cameras and snapping photos with their phones back in 2008-2010, but they were typically low-res photos that didn’t look great blown up into picture frames and were not easy to transfer. Remember, this was before Facebook was a popular place to store photos, before wirelessly syncing photos across all your devices was possible, and before social networks like Instagram turned everyone into artsy digital photographers.Digital photo frames were a hassle to set up. The generation of digital photo frames that were available at the peak of their popularity often looked lovely on the outside, but had terrible software that was not easy to set up. I say that as someone who gave digital photo frames as gift, then watched relatives struggle to get photos loaded into the thing, or to get them to display properly. Based on this Wall Street Journal story from earlier this year, they’re still far from perfect to operate.There were no photo frames from Apple, Instagram or Google. Design and consistency matter in consumer tech. With menus designed by companies such as Kodak and Viewsonic instead of, say, Apple, it’s no wonder that photo frames were hard to operate. And there’s never been any kind of standard operating system across photo frames, so buying a new photo frame different from ones you already owned would mean learning a whole new set-up for operating them. They rarely seemed worth the hassle.The Instacube fiasco. One of the best Kickstarter ideas I’ve ever seen was Instacube, a dead-simple cube frame that would display your Instagram feed. The problem is that the Kickstarter, which happened in 2012, still hasn’t generated the products promised for its backers. It has become a Kickstarter cautionary tale. And what could have popularized a new generation of slick, easy-to-use digital photo frames, has instead become an industry joke. The company behind is is currently selling a $150 product called #Cube. Given the track record, it’s hard to recommend that.A glut of products ruined the market. The digital photo frame craze happened so quickly and prices dropped so fast around 2009-2010 that what could have become a mainstream product instead became dominated by unfamiliar brands (Kodak and Polaroid were exceptions) putting out cheap products at cut-rate prices. Digital photo frames didn’t get much better and more sophisticated. And their days were numbered when other products emerged that would serve the same purpose.Tablets and TV streaming ate their lunch. It’s probably no coincidence that digital photo frames started to feel like junk around 2010. That’s the same year that Apple introduced the iPad, which could kick off a revolution in tablet computers. Tablets could easily display photos, were much more portable than digital photo frames (which typically required being plugged in or standard batteries), and had Internet capabilities for sharing and downloading that photo frames could only dream about. Since then, devices like Apple TV and Chromecast have also made it easier to display photos on a big, HD screen. Why settle for a 5 x 7 photo frame when you can show family snapshots on a 55-inch TV?
Ultimately, digital photo frames suffered from that most deadly of tech problems: bad timing. They’re still around, but if you’re seriously considering giving one as a gift (yes, I’ve been that desperate too), you should give it some serious thought. And maybe keep shopping.