Take heed Apple... An instant lesson in how to stay ahead from Polaroid
Polaroid once raked in the money as one of the planet's most innovative firms. And then it all went wrong
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, was published in 2014.
Thursday 04 October 2012
A pioneering technology company, an iconic brand, a visionary CEO who drives his employees relentlessly: sounds like the story of Apple. But, contrary to the notion that no other company is quite like Steve Jobs's, this is also the story of Polaroid and its founder Edwin Land, the subject of a new book by New York magazine journalist Christopher Bonanos. Instant: the Story of Polaroid recounts the rise and fall of the company that created instant photography, and provided a model for today's leading tech brand.
Land, who appeared on the cover of Time in June 1972, exactly 10 years before Jobs, was a serial inventor who held 535 US patents in his lifetime. He is credited with creating 3D movies, polarised car headlights, the U-2 spy-plane and, in 1943, the world's first instant camera. Land always claimed his Eureka moment came during a family holiday in Santa Fe, when he snapped a picture with his Rolleiflex of his three-year-old daughter, who asked him: "Why can't I see the pictures now?" Four years later, the Polaroid camera was launched.
It took another three decades before Polaroid released what remains its signature product: the SX-70 system, with the wide white-bordered photos for which the firm is remembered. The new camera was accompanied by a bold new brand identity, endorsed by artists such as Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol, and the business boomed throughout the 1970s. But in 1980, Land was coaxed into retirement, and many trace his company's decline to that moment. Without its far-sighted founder, Polaroid floundered, failing to embrace digital photography and, finally, filing for bankruptcy in 2001.
Its assests have since been passed around and revived in various forms.
Jobs was fascinated by Land. "Jobs was a marketer who knew his science; Land was a scientist who was never happier than when he was in the lab," Bonanos explains. "But they shared the same relentless perfectionism, though Land was a kinder person than Jobs. People may have found him professionally exasperating, but his old colleagues still talk about him with love, which is remarkable given he's been dead for 20 years and gone from Polaroid for 30."
Land was the first person to turn his annual company meeting from a spreadsheet presentation into a performance and a platform from which to show off new products. He was known to have a string quartet accompanying his demonstrations and once ordered 10,000 tulips for an SX-70 launch event, because he knew that his guests would be eager to test its much-heralded colour close-up capabilities by taking pictures of the flowers.
"Both Land and Jobs had this idea that the product is the thing," says Bonanas. "Land felt you should always just show people how it worked and by the time you were done, they'd realise they'd always wanted one. You surely remember the first time you saw an iPhone and went 'Ahhhh!' The first Polaroid cameras in the 1940s did the same thing and so did the SX-70 in the 1970s. They pushed that pleasure button we all have and which Land and Jobs were so good at finding."
Remarkably, Land's company had the instant-photography market all to itself for most of its six decades. In 1976, Kodak released its own instant cameras and Polaroid sued for patent infringement – a case not dissimilar to Apple's recent legal battle with Samsung. Ten years later, after 16 million of its instant cameras had been sold, a judge ordered Kodak to discontinue the cameras and their film. In 1990 Polaroid got more than $909m in damages, in the biggest patent-infringement judgement ever.
Polaroid's dominance was maintained by the strict patent system, says Bonanos. "Nobody else could make films for a Polaroid camera because of the tightness of the patents and film had a 60 per cent profit margin. So when it was developing the SX-70 they could spend seven years and $2bn on it because it had the market to itself.
"Now is the cycle is a lot faster. Apple comes along with the iPhone, but three years later Samsung and the Android system are out, too. Instead of 30 years, you have months."
Nowadays, Fuji still manufactures instant film, and in Holland, a pair of Polaroid-lovers raised the funds to keep making film at a former Polaroid factory from 2010. The latest films from the so-called "Impossible Project" come tantalisingly close to matching the original.
Instant takes in technology and pop culture, but is also an invaluable lesson for younger companies seeking to avoid Polaroid's mis-steps. "Polaroid was making so much money on film that anything which cut into that seemed dangerous. When they saw digital coming, they retreated from it. If you're a technology company, something is going to leapfrog your technology. If that thing is not made by you, it's going to be made by someone else. Edwin Land also said: 'Don't do anything someone else can do.' If you have an idea that's your own, that's the most important thing. That's how you get rich, and – as Steve Jobs used to say – how you 'make a dent in the universe'."
Despite the demise of the company, the Polaroid aesthetic is still thriving, thanks to smartphone apps such as Hipstamatic and Instagram, which offer digital filters that imitate the flaws of instant photography. "If everything looks really clean, as digital photography does, there's a hunger for something that looks handmade," says Bonanos. "More importantly, there's only one of any Polaroid picture. A digital photo can be reproduced infinitely in a second, but every Polaroid is an edition of one."
What would Land, who died in 1991, have made of Instagram? "I assume he would have adored it. He wanted people to have the experience of sharing photographs right away. What he envisioned was something very like the way we connect through the internet and Facebook. There's a clip of Land in 1970 predicting: 'A camera that would be like a telephone: something that you use all day long…' And he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a black wallet that's a little longer than it is wide, and holds it up in front of his eye vertically and it looks for all the world as if he's holding an iPhone."
'Instant: The Story of Polaroid' is published by Princeton Architectural Press, £15.99
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