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The Digital Skeptic: Will.i.am Brands Show Just How Hard It Is To Get Paid

Stocks in this article: AAPL KO

"Starting up a product was easier than I thought," he told the crowd.

That all may be true. But one does not need to be a new-media Will.i.am to see the chance that an iPhone add-on -- or the larger trend of betting on said celebrities as gadget rainmakers -- making any real money is almost incomprehensibly small.

"Will.i.am is definitely a success story in making money in the music business," Smits said. "But selling pricey iPhone parts, that's going to be a challenge."

One-hit tech wonder
Will.i.am's -- and investors' -- challenges with products such as foto.sosho start with the new reality of celebrity-branded electronics. Get over it, but fame is just another form of intellectual property looking for its next connect in the crowded digital slum.

To name just a few, The Bob Marley estate now ships a full line of darn good headphones, boom boxes and apparel under the House of Marley brand. Heavy metal act Motorhead sells some decent headphones. And then there is Ludacris' Soul line, which counts no less than Tim Tebow and Usain Bolt as branded sponsors.

That would be merely stiff competition save for one fact: headphones take advantage of a rare gap in electronics: the contempt Steve Jobs must have had for audio quality. For reasons nobody has ever explained, Apple (AAPL) devices including iPods, iPhones and iPads ship with what I find to be some of the worst-quality earphones on the market. That leaves space for new entrants, a space that simply doesn't exist in smartphone imaging peripherals.

Never mind that in-phone cameras and apps are becoming ludicrously powerful (ever heard of Instagram?). Will.i.am competes with a tidal wave of iPhoto add-ons. Take Photojojo, which sells a $30 iPhone lens from Hong Kong-based Holga that takes surprisingly interesting photos with a simple snap-on color wheel. Or, for $70, try the Huntington Beach, Calif.-based olloclip, a three-in-one iPhone lens that also takes darn good pictures.

"It is going to be hard to see what a $400 iPhone camera will do in this market," Smits told me.

I dig Will.i.am's track Scream & Shout as much as the next wanna-be DJ. But he's far from the only star peddling his name in technology. Far bigger names including Serena Williams, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Justin Bieber and Kanye West (and, in a different way, Justin Timberlake with MySpace) all are flogging tech bets.

"I made this thing because I don't want to be a rapper anymore," Will.i.am joked on the Las Vegas stage. Considering what those performers make -- and the tough road he's chosen for himself in electronics, he might want to keep his options open.

A simple iPhone camera just ain't gonna go platinum here in the digital hood.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
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