NEW YORK - The photos are grainy, blotchy and blurry, but for millions of people now toting cell phones with built-in digital cameras, it doesn’t seem to be about the megapixels — or at least not yet.
Tens of millions of these less-than perfect pictures were snapped and e-mailed from cell phones in the United States during 2003, the first full year such services were available.
News organizations are publishing cell photos from their readers to help cover stories. And an untold number of mobile phone snapshots are being posted daily to ‘‘moblogs,’’ a visual form of the online journals better known as Web logs, or blogs.
In short, corny as it sounds, cellular photography seems to be about adding new immediacy to the old Kodak pitch, ‘‘share the moment.’’
But much as this country has lagged Asia and Europe in many facets of the mobile phone revolution, cell photography is still a rather niche hobby in the United States — a major challenge for wireless companies desperate to generate new revenues from nonvoice services.
Of the roughly 75 million camera phones shipped worldwide in 2003, only 6 million went to the United States, compared with more than 35 million to Japan, according to Strategy Analytics Ltd., a British consulting firm.
Likewise, North America accounted for just 1.7 million of the world’s 24 million ‘‘active’’ users of camera phones, compared with a combined 21.6 million in Japan and South Korea.
Clearly, cell phone users are charmed by the spontaneity of snapping a picture whenever and wherever the urge hits them, then immediately zipping it off to friends or family.
And precisely because such shots aren’t destined for a photo album or frame, there’s less need to fret over getting a picture just right, making the process a more casual affair like e-mail rather than taking a photo.
‘‘My friend took a picture of himself in a cab and sent it to me. I sent a picture of a puppy,’’ said Margarita Stofan, 25, a newcomer to cell photography who also shares pictures with three family members who have camera phones. ‘‘I didn’t plan on getting one because extra stuff in cell phones seems silly. But the salesman talked me into it, and I found it’s fun little feature to have. I take pictures of everyone around me — just random photos.’’
But much as that story may warm the hearts of wireless executives, it also illustrates the numerous hurdles that cellular companies face in driving subscribers to a premium service like picture messaging.
These factors include cost, incompatibility among the different carriers, and a limited pool of fellow camera phone owners with whom to swap photos.
And, for those who can’t fathom a camera that’s not meant to produce physical prints, picture quality remains a turnoff.
The pictures also aren’t sharp enough yet to fulfill expectations that camera phones will be used as a business tool by real estate agents, insurance claims adjusters and other professionals.
Though one- and twomegapixel camera phones like those available overseas are expected here this year, none of the handsets now sold in the United States offers better than 0.3 megapixels, less than a third of the resolution of the lowest-end standalone digital camera.
Stofan, who works for an investment bank in New York City, found herself in the market for a new phone only because she was forced to buy a new handset when switching wireless companies in December.
Had she not decided to leave T-Mobile for Sprint, it’s unlikely she would have been mulling a replacement for what she considered a perfectly good handset, let alone spending $200 to do so.
So while first-time subscribers and switchers like Stofan are ripe for the camera phone pitch, wireless companies face a much harder sell with existing customers, who tend to hang onto their handsets an average of 18 months.