Date posted: July 19, 2012
The Kodak moment is back. When the company that invented popular photography filed for bankruptcy protection five months ago, it provoked a tut-tut that was heard around the world. The company had been undone by the advent of digital photography – a technology it pioneered, but never managed to turn to its own advantage.
The “portable all-electronic still camera”, invented by Steve Sasson in 1975, was awarded US patent number 4,131,919, but that wasn’t enough to convince Kodak executives. As Sasson would write many years later, they could not understand why people would ever want to view their pictures on a TV.
The insensitive title of Sasson’s presentations to internal Kodak audiences didn’t help either: “Film-less Photography”. In a company that had 90% market share of all film sold in the USA.
As a result, the project was not mentioned again until 2001, when the world was already changing. But Sasson’s technical report from 1975 was prophetic: “The camera described in this report represents a first attempt demonstrating a photographic system which may, with improvements in technology, substantially impact the way pictures will be taken in the future.”
Over the next two decades, both Sony and Nikon would lead the way with professional digital cameras, followed grudgingly by Kodak. The consumer digital camera revolution began in 2000 with a device by Fuji – Kodak’s mortal enemy in the film business. The evolution of devices was then as rapid as the disappearance of film from the shelves. This month, Canon announced the first digital SLR camera with a touchscreen.
In the meantime, Kodak has laid off 47,000 workers and closed 13 film-manufacturing factories in the past nine years. “The Kodak moment” – the slogan given to the concept of capturing a great memory in one image – became a mere memory for the company that had invented it and earlier this year Kodak built its last digital camera.
But filing for bankruptcy protection is not the same thing as going out of business. While the lawyers and accountants restructure the company’s debts and focus on preserving it as an operating entity, the researchers, marketers and strategists have set about reinventing the business.
Taking advantage of the area where it has been strongest in recent years, printing technology, it has abandoned the image “capture” market, and embraced the “post capture” market: everything you do with images after they’ve been captured.
This is best demonstrated with its wireless all-in-one printers, and a mini-application for mobile phones called the Pic Flick App. It is available for BlackBerry, Android phones and the iPhone, and allows you to select a pic, and send it directly from the phone to a printer.
This is where things get really interesting. Kodak has quietly become an innovator in printer ink. Where most other printer ink is either pigment-based (lasts long, but not so bright) or dye-based (super-bright, but doesn’t last), Kodak has come up with a combination of the two that looks good and lasts.
It’s also addressed the single biggest complaint the entire world has about inkjet printers: the cost of cartridges. Most printer companies produce a bewildering array of cartridges at insane prices – typically, a cheap inkjet printer costs less than its replacement ink cartridges.
Kodak has standardised on a couple of low-cost cartridge ranges, under the easy-to-remember labels Series 10 and Series 30. Standardisation also makes them cheaper to mass produce, and suddenly makes it cost-effective to print out photos at home. For example, a black and white Series 30 cartridge, used in Kodak’s HERO and ESP all-in-one printers, costs R99.
The printers take photographic paper and, when an image is sent from a phone to the device, it prints almost instantly – in vivid colour. The look, feel and format is indistinguishable from what you used to collect after handing in your film at the 1-hour photo kiosk.
If Kodak survives the lawyers, it may well be able to define a new Kodak moment: the moment your photo emerges from your home printer.