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Friday, January 08, 2010, 08:00 am PT (11:00 am ET)

Source: Apple shopping for LED camera flash components

Apple in recent months has moved to procure significant quantities of LED camera flash components that could help the iPhone maker's next-generation mobile handsets produce superior image and video captures in low-light situations, AppleInsider has learned.

The lack of camera flash technology has long stood as one of the iPhone's glaring omissions. Although the handset's existing 3.2 megapixel camera produces surprisingly sharp and vibrant images when employed in sun-drenched scenes and aptly lit venues, its lack of flash often leads to disappointing, dark and grainy photographs in more dimly-lit scenarios.

In making the jump to the iPhone 3GS last spring, the Cupertino-based company was content in focusing on enhancements to the overall user experience of its mobile phone to maintain its high level of satisfaction amongst consumers. Improvements to the device's camera technology were limited to an updated image sensor capable of capturing 1.1 more megapixels, and software technology to improve the quality of motion photos and those taken in poor lighting.

Despite these changes, clarity in photos taken indoors and at nighttime continue to elude users, often leading to frustrating results or images that are completely blacked out. A move by Apple to build flash technology into future versions of the iPhone makes more sense now than ever, especially given the increasing popularity of the device as an impulse point-and-shoot camera, as well as rising competition from rival handset makers who count camera flash technology on their handsets as an advantage over the iPhone.

For example, Palm's Pre, Motorola's Droid and Google's new Nexus One — seen by some industry watchers as contenders that could combine to potentially disrupt the iPhone's staggering growth — each ship with LED flash technology. And in the case of the the latter two, both include image sensors suited for capturing 5-megapixels compared to the 3.2-megapixel sensor on the iPhone 3GS.

People familiar with Apple's initiative claim the electronics maker is seeking allotments of LED camera flash components in the tens of millions for delivery during the 2010 calendar year, meaning future iPhones — and possibly the iPod touch — are the most likely recipients of those parts, due to their sales volume. Those same people say that Philips' Lumileds Lighting sector is believed to be the front-runner for Apple's business and may have already secured the design win.

The Amsterdam-based firm is well-regarded for its LUXEON LED camera flash technology, which was the first to combine the brightness of regular lighting with the long life and small footprint of LEDs. The technology is commonly coupled with 5+ megapixel cameras and has seen shipments of over 200 million units worldwide.

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A move by Apple towards the LUXEON components would also appear to jibe with rumors that the iPhone maker has placed orders with OmniVision, its current supplier of CMOS image sensors, for as many as 45 million 5-megapixel parts for the next-generation of the handset due by late spring . The company is also likely to leverage the iPhone's ambient light sensor, in addition to providing a software switch, to ensure that the LED flash won't interfere in photos where it isn't needed.

Low power consumption, drive circuitry that demands little real estate, and a lack of significant electromagnetic interference (EMI) generation are a few of the advantages that have helped push the use of an LED flash in camera phones. And since the same LED flash can also be operated as a continuous light source, it would be suitable for proving light to enhance iPhone video recordings  as well — not to mention closing the book on the numerous, dinky iPhone flashlight apps proliferating the App Store.