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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Kodak moments fading into history

Browniebox on oak

My hearth bleeds yellow as Kodak is fading away. This company has been dear to me in many ways. First of all I was literally fed on it, as my father being a photographer mainly used Kodak film. As I grew up beyond my Lego camera, I used to get a roll of Kodakcrrome and always cherished the fact that processing was included and after a while  a box of vivid slides were returned in their paper frames. Kodak was my first proper summer job, when I spent time at their French factory mainly learning French, driving through Bourgogne, also doing some field tests of Kodakchrome. I remember once I got to dine in the Anselm Adams decorated guest cabinets, those black and white landscapes felt like they had vivid colours. Much later in 2002 as we were readying the first Series 60 device, the Nokia 7650 slider with a VGA camera, I remember one of the most iconic speeches by my mentor Anssi Vanjoki, where he proclaims for a packed audience at Mobile World Congress, how cameraphones would kill the chemical photography industry, and how Nokia would become the largest camera manufacturer. 

Not much later I got into the digital photo business, creating Nokia Lifeblog with my team. At the same time I met the Kodak guys, actually the folks of Ofoto who, Kodak had acquired. Ofoto was the largest deposit of digital photos on the planet. As we were readying our product we realised the power of the Kodak IPR portfolio, and decided to give an early preview of what we were doing and wanted them as printing partners. The Kodak and Nokia partnership became strong, and I even got to demo Lifeblog for Anthony Perez, the CEO of Kodak. Not much later the relationship exploded as Kodak decided to sue everyone in the industry. Grossly simplified it is impossible to make a digital camera without violating Kodak IPR.

The Kodak guys practically invented digital photography, there is a legend, that Kodak had a skunksworks where they built the first digital consumer camera, but could not launched it, so they got Apple to launch it instead. As the Kodak guys feared that it would cannibalize the film business. I do not know how much if any is true.

As Kodak sued everyone they did not win friends. I think I was personally the only winner in this relationship, as I won some wonderful friend for life.

What really triggered this post was a strategic opinion I had at the time. I was of the opinion what Kodak should have done, was to use their IPR to get back to their roots, and make digital camera's, but not the physical ones, they were making, but truly digital, as apps in the camera phones. I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to re-introduce the brand to a younger audience, and to claim single button access to the UI. The handset vendors could have protested, and given chance to pay. What is so ironic is that we now have hugely popular start-up like Instagram, which to some degree lends its name from an iconic Kodak brand the Instamatic. I am well aware that this would probably not have fed the Kodak staff of 20000 or so, but it would not have wiped them out of conscious. It would have led to a business of add-ons like digital albums, image sharing, printing, all from the camera. Maybe even Facebook would not have become the place for sharing images. Who knows, main point images of us define us, and no one knew that better than George Eastman.

George Eastman, is one of my innovation heroes. The creation of the Brownie box and using simplification tactics referring to a popular children's cartoon the Brownies, indicating that photography is easy as child’s play is an innovation and marketing master piece. Maybe he should be credited giving birth to the gadget industry, as the camera was one of the first must have gadgets of the 20th century. Their iconic advertising targeted to women, encouraging them to capture family events as Kodak Moments. Thanks to George Eastman and his team, the 21st century was well documented from my grandfathers onward. The Brownie box was a much bigger societal transformer, up there alongside the mobile phone and the personal computer.

At some point in time there were more than 100 firms in Rochester making camera lenses. Kodak was the biggest camera manufacturer for a long time. To see Kodak seeking for bankruptcy protection does make my heart bleed yellow.  I can only think what if, we all would use Kodak cameras in our phones, this is not the case, but at least I have my friends and my memories. Long live the memories of Kodak Moments.



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