Kodak was never going to be the Kodak of digital photography

Don't blame the once-mighty company too much for its decline--it was never meant to dominate photography in the 21st century,

First, an important point: The fact that Eastman Kodak has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy is no reason to begin talking about this iconic American company in the past tense.

Kodak isn't going out of business. In fact, the whole point of chapter 11 is to help an ailing business avoid death and move forward. I'm still hoping that Kodak will find a way to be viable--even successful--for years to come.

Kodak EasyShare Sport
A current Kodak camera, the EasyShare sport. Kodak

But will it restore the unique place it held in America's collective consciousness? No, of course not. In 1976, it had 90 percent of the film market and 85 percent of the camera market, according to a Harvard Business School case study cited by Wikipedia. Few companies have every dominated an aspect of everyday life as utterly as Kodak dominated photography--and it did it for decades.

When a venerable, successful company flounders as times change, it's tempting to look back for moments in time when one decision, made differently, would have led to a better outcome. It's obvious that the great shift from film photography to digital photography changed everything for Kodak. Given that the company invented the digital camera, one might leap to the conclusion that it foolishly failed to understand what it had wrought, thereby blowing the chance to be the Kodak of digital photography.

Except it's not that simple. Kodak did comprehend that digital photography was going to be huge. It jumped on the digital-camera bandwagon early. It was one of the top-selling brands in the late 1990s and early this century, when consumers first started to replace their 35mm point-and-shoots with digital models. In a market dominated by Canon, Nikon, Sony and other Japanese brands, it was the only U.S. camera company that managed any real success at all. (HP made digital cameras for a time, but exited the business in 2007.)

It's also not as if some other company has emerged as the Kodak of digital. In the company's golden age, consumers used a Kodak camera to take pictures on Kodak film, which they then had processed by a Kodak lab on Kodak paper. Today, no single company has replicated that ecosystem in digital form. There are camera manufacturers, and memory-card manufacturers, and printer companies, and photo-sharing sites--and all of these businesses benefit from healthy competition among multiple major players, rather than the monopolistic position that Kodak once enjoyed.

Then there's the fact that there's a second digital-photography revolution underway:  Cameraphones are replacing point-and-shoot cameras  in consumers' hearts, minds, and pockets. Even if Kodak had ended up the undisputed king of point-and-shoots, it might well be running into serious trouble right now, unless it had somehow managed to invent the cameraphone and dominate that market, too.

I'm not saying that there was no way Kodak could have avoided its current precarious state. The Economist has a good story on why FujiFilm, Kodak's longtime arch-rival and near-doppelganger, continues to do quite well in the post-film era. (Executive summary: It's invested in new products and technologies, has diversified smartly, and didn't assume that brilliant marketing and a famous brand would get it where it needed to be.) Kodak's management clearly made more mistakes than Fuji's did, and now the company is paying for them.

If Kodak was as healthy as FujiFilm is today, nobody would be writing premature obituaries for it. It wouldn't, however, feel like the Kodak of old. That's a shame. But it's also part of life. If the technology industry was controlled by the same big companies with the same wildly successful business models forever, very few breakthroughs would happen--and Kodak's fall from grace is a natural outcome of the processes that drive innovation.

 

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