kodak-logoA while ago, in my story about Route 66 and technology shifts, I mentioned Kodak’s failure to hop on the digital camera bandwagon quickly enough. In the last week or so, the Wall Street Journal reported Kodak is on the verge of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, mainly so that it can sell off 1,100 patents through a court-supervised auction.

The Journal article suggests Kodak has been having trouble finding a suitable direction over the last couple of decades:

Casting about for alternatives to its lucrative but shrinking film business, Kodak toyed with chemicals, bathroom cleaners and medical-testing devices in the 1980s and 1990s, before deciding to focus on consumer and commercial printers in the past half-decade under Chief Executive Antonio Perez.

The Australian blog The Conversation suggests that Kodak’s problem is not, as some (such as the Techdirt article I quoted in my Route 66 post) would have it, a failure to embrace digital quickly enough, or the rise of “good enough” phone cameras displacing the need for a separate point-and-shoot. (In fact, phone cameras took only about 6% of all photos shared on Flickr.) The actual problem cuts deeper than that, and has to do with a failure in Kodak’s mindset—it’s not about what people take pictures with, it’s about what they do with them afterward.

Kodak’s fundamental problem, the blog suggests, is that it was still fixated on people printing photos after they take them. Back in the days of film, people took photos to remember things. (Given how expensive and slow to develop film was, it’s not surprising that it would have been reserved for important things like that.) But the purpose of personal photography has changed with digital—it’s no longer about making memories, but about communication and personal identity.

GEDC0512We (especially young people) now take photos on the spur of the moment, upload them to Facebook or Flickr, and add comments on them that show what we’re doing or thinking about. We can take them for the most trivial of reasons, such as the snapshot I took the other day of a package of chocolate-coated “dried plum” bites. I took it so I could share it on Facebook with a note about how hilarious I found it that the word “prune” didn’t appear anywhere on the package. I have no desire at all to print it out, and there’s no way I would ever have taken a photo like that back in the days of film.

But just when all this was happening, as quoted above, for the last five years Kodak has been focusing on “consumer and commercial printers.” Meanwhile, companies like Nikon and Canon who have a better grounding in hardware and technology have been eating Kodak’s lunch.

Assuming Kodak’s Chapter 11 reorganization succeeds, of course, the company will still be with us. But it’s doubtful it will be more than a niche player in the new world of digital photography—its competitors are just too far ahead. The time seems to have passed when Kodak could expect a “photo finish.”

Perhaps this also has some implications for books. Kodak was hung up on the old form factor and uses of photos: you take a picture, you want to print it out. Now granted, people have almost never wanted to print e-books out, but most publishers and e-tailers have been treating them as essentially exactly the same thing as paper books just in a different form factor. But the front runners, such as Amazon, seem to have focused instead on how to make e-books and e-readers indispensible to people’s lives in ways paper books haven’t been.

(Found via Slashdot.)


  1. This is a good column. I know that the only hardcopy photos of my niece are the ones we give to her great-grandmother who doesn’t have a computer. And those photos are printed from digital files, even; I don’t think she’s ever had a film camera take a picture of her. (It’s cute–as soon as you take a picture she wants to see it on the screen of whatever device you used. The idea that you might not be able to see the picture right away is completely alien to her.

  2. I worked with Kodak corporate printing equipment when they were trying to make that their future in the 1990s. They weren’t just concerned with photos at that time; they were really going for commercial documents and high-speed office printers, a much bigger market than consumer photo printing.

    It’s not that their equipment was bad, but other companies already had corporate mindshare at that point (Xerox–the 500-lb gorilla of the market–Canon, Sharp, etc) and new, cheaper companies from overseas (Ikon) were aggressively capturing the lower-end corporate market. They simply couldn’t compete with a market that was too far ahead of them or too cheap for them to match. It was a good strategy, but bad luck that they weren’t up to the challenge.

    Kodak could have never “gotten” e-media, but if their bid for the business printer market had worked out… ask Xerox how that’s going.

  3. Why do people insist on blaming the victim, in these sort of situations.

    The bottom line is- Kodak was a proverbial “buggy whip maker” that never had a chance.

    Kodak made film. Film that modern cameras don’t use. They had to maintain expensive production facilities to do that. They couldn’t re-purpose that equipment to do anything else, and the only way to make the capitalized debt obligations go away was to declare bankruptcy.

    And there was no way to control the descent- other camera companies, which had no exposure to the film market, had nothing to lose by switching over to digital cameras instantaneously. And once that happened, even die-hard Kodak enthusiasts (and there were plenty) simply had no way to use for the product they loved, regardless of how good or how cheap Kodak could make it.

    Printing press operators may have that issue (useless assets, market outside of their control) due to ebooks. Publishers and bookstores shouldn’t.

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