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Kodak exec blasted for digital photo remarks

A senior Kodak executive says digital technology isn't good enough to replace traditional photography yet--a statement that one incredulous analyst called "astounding."

A senior Kodak executive said today that digital technology isn't good enough to replace traditional photography yet--a statement met with incredulity by analysts who dismissed the assessment as yellowing like an old photograph.

Today's digital imaging does not offer sufficient benefits to unseat photographic methods used for more than a century, whether achieved through digital cameras linked to PCs or traditional photographs processed and stored in a digital format, said Carl Gustin, chief marketing officer for Kodak.

"To make a new model work, the old model has to be broken," Gustin told CNET "Today, digital imaging doesn't offer anything [better] besides sharing."

His comments, made in a wide-ranging interview requested by Kodak's public relations agency, stunned industry analysts. The remarks were particularly surprising because of Gustin's background as general manager of Kodak's digital and applied imaging division in 1994 and 1995 before he became vice president of marketing.

"Honestly, this sounds like something someone would say two years ago," said Carl Holec, a digital imaging analyst with market research firm ARS. He called Gustin's remarks "astounding."

Gustin's tepid enthusiasm for the burgeoning technology reflects the difficulty Kodak has had in its somewhat unique position as a major supplier of both digital and traditional photography products. Like any traditional company attempting to alter its strategy to include Internet-based businesses, Kodak must worry that aggressively promoting digital product lines may cannibalize traditional sales.

Wall Street has hammered Kodak's stock in the past year because of the perception that the coming digital revolution could eventually decimate film sales and processing services. Many financial and technology analysts believe that the tide has already turned.

Nevertheless, Gustin maintained that digital photography will not achieve mass-market status until a variety of issues are resolved. Digital cameras capable of capturing pictures with a resolution of 2 million pixels will have to drop in price to under $100, he said. And the computing industry will have to simplify the process of downloading, manipulating and printing the digital images.

"Digital cameras are still too hard to use," he said, including Kodak's cameras in that criticism. "They're not great, but they're better than anything else that's out there," he said. In addition, with digital photography, consumers can't save the negatives of pictures they don't want to print right away, or at least, not easily, he said. "Putting it through the PC is a pain."

Analysts strongly disagree. With technology advances and price drops, digital cameras are generally $200 more than high-quality traditional cameras, but they come with the flexibility to manipulate and preview images, as well as share them through the Internet.

"It's a completely different paradigm," Holec said, noting that many of Kodak's digital cameras offer traditional image quality with the flexibility of digital technology. "Kodak has always been one of the leaders in the digital segment."

Gustin's comments were further surprising in light of the strides the company has made in its digital businesses. Kodak's "You've Got Pictures" promotion with America Online and its PictureCD partnership with Intel are growing in popularity, he says, and the Web site's traffic is strong enough to support third-party advertising.

But those successes still don't compare with the company's traditional business, where it accounts for 70 percent of the 540 million of rolls of film processed each year. This compares with worldwide digital camera shipments of 4.7 million this year, according to market research firm International Data Corporation, and 22 million shipments by 2003.

Despite his individual skepticism about imminent widespread adoption of digital photography, Gustin is confident that Kodak is well-positioned to profit. "The mass market is not going to happen until the cost and time of digital imaging isn't [better] than the old model," he said. "We don't care when it happens because we make money on every link in the chain."