The first camera I ever owned was a Kodak. It was a little camera that had a cover which flipped over and out of the way, making for an excellent grip while taking pictures. It also used the 110-type film that made loading and unloading of film a hell of a lot easier than 35mm film.
I still have the camera, stuck away in a box of things that I am holding onto for sentimental reasons. There may be one company making film for it somewhere in the world, but I don’t think I will ever take another photo with it.
Because of this history, I have a soft spot for Kodak and I felt a little sad for the company when it declared bankruptcy last week. It wasn’t the sadness I felt when Steve Jobs passed away, more like the kind of sadness that you feel for your alcoholic great-uncle when he finally succumbs to cirrhosis of the liver at age 80 – you all knew it was coming and he brought it on himself.
Kodak had multiple chances to be a real player in the digital economy and managed to blow almost every one of them.
It invented the digital camera in 1975 and didn’t push the technology forward. It was supplying the sensors for the first professional level digital cameras in the late 1990’s and blew that one too. Kodak had, along with Apple, one of the first point and shoot digital cameras, and failed to capitalise on that as well.
If anyone ever doubts how badly Kodak stuffed up a potentially winning situation you need only ask yourself one question: “Have I ever seen a Kodak digital camera that I wanted more than a camera built by Nikon or Canon?”
I doubt anyone will be answering yes.
What Kodak offers us is a telling cautionary tale of how a company with the world at its feet can, in the space of a few short years, fall from grace and end up at the knackers yard.
An equally pertinent example is that of Palm. For those that had a Palm V, the similarities between those PDAs and the iPhone OS are eerie. The touch screen and the icons all point toward Palm being the company that would produce the first smartphone to capture the public’s’ imagination, but when Palm eventually got around to releasing WebOS, it was too late and the company was already doomed.
Kodak and Palm have a lot in common; they were early to market with a technology that today we take for granted. Given the right leadership they could have dominated their respective arenas, but failed because they moved too slowly or were unwilling to cannibalise their existing products to drive sales of new technologies.
Should Nokia fall into the cautionary tale group it will be because it took them five years from the launch of the iPhone to come up with a smartphone that people actually loved; and even then the N9 was only brought to market to fulfil a contractual obligation.
It remains to be seen whether the Lumia 800 generates the same amount of empathy from users.
The lessons for business are clear – if you are in an industry that is coming to the end of it’s useful lifespan, get out early and transform (you can speak to IBM about how to do this), or prepare the company for a slow and graceful slide into obsolescence.
Otherwise all you will be is a series of negative headlines and a great case study for future MBA students.
Oh, and a series of memento’s of a youth long gone.