Kodak Christmas Cards - Smoke em while you got em, Kodak.

Do you need HannuChristmaKwaanzaDon cards in 1961? Kodak's got you covered! Choose from one of a handful of feeble designs, stick in your snapshot, and shut up, because in '61, you should be thrilled you can play this game at all, let alone get a custom design.

 I feel bad for Kodak. They were pretty much the last word in film stock for decades, until the digital revolution left them out on the back porch of the industry, staring in through the frosty window at the table all laid heavy with a sumptuous banquet of profits and technical relevance. Yep, Kodak was pretty much The Shit since the early 1900s, although at the time they probably used different terms to describe their dominance in the film marketplace. Even "The Feces" would have come off as sounding derogatory back then. Slang is a crazy thing.

Kodak pretty much invented digital photography back in 1975 with an experimental eight-pound doorstop that captured .01-megapixel (10,000 pixel) pictures in black and white at a rate of 23 seconds per image. It recorded them on cassette tape and you watched your pictures on a television. Oof! Gotta start somewhere. The whole story can be read on Steve Sasson's blog. He was one of the lead engineers on the project.

Hey! The Hendersons' Christmas card arrived!
Of course, it wasn't a production unit. It was more of a "can we even do this?" test bed. Turns out you can do it. At the time, they used Moore's Law to extrapolate how many years it would take for digital cameras to wind up in the hands of your average mouth-breathing troglodyte...

" ...we attempted to address the last question by applying Moore’s law to our architecture (15 to 20 years to reach the consumer), We had no idea how to answer these or the many other challenges that were suggested by this approach."

They were pretty much on the money. So what happened? Just because a couple of engineers in your skunkworks patent a new technology, it doesn't mean the guys in suits can see the potential. Fast forward about 25 years and Kodak had totally missed out on the digital camera thing and now they haven't made a profit since 2007. They're still making printers and ink cartridges  and you can still get Exmess cards made at a Kodak kiosk, if there's one within a few miles of your house.

We're goin' off the raaaails on a Christmas traaaiiinnn.
It's easy to look at the aftermath of a battle and spout off about mistakes people made. So where's it going now? What's the next leap in technology that's going unnoticed? Errr. Well, there's that Lytro "Light Field" camera that lets you re-focus the picture after it's taken. However, that trick only works on a computer with their software installed, or in a web browser, which is super restrictive. Also, the images are REALLY low-res. Comb the Lytro site and you may be able to find out that the pictures are one megapixel, which is hilarious compared to the rest of the industry's ten-to-sixteen megapixel standard. Plus the camera is a toy, not a camera. You can't swap lenses, can't mess with any settings, and the color display is an inch wide. Until they license this technology to an actual camera company (or cellular phone maker?), I think it will be a photographic curiosity.

What else? Umm. 3D pictures are something you'd think you want, until you look at one and get a bleeding-eyes migraine. Lose the glasses and make it work on any old display and you'll be in business. 3D TVs have been around for a few years but I don't know anybody that has one. We just make fun of them. Mostly, nobody wants 3D in their house for now.

Let's see. Polaroid has that printer that doesn't use ink, but instead uses special paper filled with... uuh, ink which is activated by a laser in the printer. Hmm. That's kind of lame. Just a technological shell game moving the ink from the printer to the paper. That paper must cost a fortune.

This crystal ball stuff is hard, of course. Even in the case of that Kodak patent for the digital camera, the invention (apart from the patent filing) was a secret until 2001, at which point Kodak then tried to cash in by suing the crap out of everyone who had developed their own digital camera in the intervening years . That seems to be kind of a signal for "the start of the end" for a company - when you stop inventing things and just sue everyone's brains out. It smells of stagnation, like a company that's frustrated that it can't come up with new things any more.

What am I paying you for? Stop inventing that
revolutionary thing and get back to work.
So, just like the way Xerox invented the mouse in 1970 and dismissed it as silly, it's possible that something new and great is sitting in the drawer of an executive who doesn't see the potential, but still puts a lid on the development. We'll never know until someone with more vision invents it again and gets sued by the douchebag that tried to keep it from happening the first time around. Well done, guys. It's worth mentioning that the people who invent the thing are rarely the ones who shut it down. They're always super cranked about whet they invented, and want it to be developed. They're sometimes sent back to their desks to "stop fooling around and get back to work" by their leaders. Sometimes this is a massive mistake.

Now get back to work.

UPDATE: Some "old timey" camera companies that managed to survive the digital revolution by evolving with the times: Olympus, Canon, Fuji, Pentax.

Click for big.


Elaine said...

Nice post. Kodak was not only good at camera devices. I'm restoring vintage slide photography digitally and Kodak slide film was The Big Shit in that era. I'm seeing colors that are perfect looking today compared to other makes, where slides 20 years older, look 10 times worse (not Shit, just shitty!).

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Hey, good story about the slides. One would hope that Kodak's stuff hold up better than others, but testimony is good. I know what you mean. Kodak probably would still be a player if not for the shortsightedness of a handful of people.

To be fair, we tend to hear about the tragic stuff like this. For every one story about the blunder that broke the company, there are probably a thousand other situations where execs shut down a project that would have turned out to be a silly waste of time and money. These are probably routine, and don't make a good story.

Thanks, Elaine!


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