Nothing has changed the way we see the world quite like photography. Now, we take over one trillion images every year. But who could’ve foreseen it? A man named George Eastman in Rochester, New York, could. Trying to take a trip to Santo Domingo, he jettisoned this idea after realizing he couldn’t carry around all that photography equipment. So, in 1883, he created a way to make photography portable, convenient, and available to the masses. And it gave him a line into luminaries like Thomas Edison and Walt Disney.
After decades of dominance, and a dogged pursuit of innovation, the R&D department financed the invention of the first “digital camera,” way back in 1975. With Steve Sasson's invention, Kodak had the keys to the future and kept them locked – because execs feared the digital camera would cannibalize their film business. Sometimes, an idea can be too ahead of its time, and years before the popularization of the personal computer and the internet, the technology gathered dust before ultimately finding a home in the Smithsonian.
By protecting the core business at all costs, Kodak found itself usurped on the low-end of the market by Finnish conglomerate Nokia, whose camera-phone popularization changed the way humans take, share and consume photography. It’s a behavioral evolution that’s turned us all into amateur photographers and allowed us to share our lives instantly. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, a mere 15 years after being one of the most well-respected brands in the world. It just goes to show you, that if you’re unable to predict the future, or unwilling to pivot quickly, you can go from industry titan to cautionary tale in a snap.
“They said, ‘OK Sasson, let me get this straight... for $1,100 you're going to give me worse pictures than I get from an Instamatic camera that I can buy for $25? Tell me why we're listening to this.’ And I didn't have an answer.”
Steve Sasson, Inventor of the digital camera
What you’ll hear in this episode
- One trillion images per year. How did we get here?
- The kitchen sink that invented mass-market photography
- “My work is done. Why wait?”
- 70% market share. 70% margin. No, that’s not a misprint.
- 20 years ago, Kodak was the 4th most valuable brand in the US
- The toaster-looking thing that was a generation too early
- What’s a “zone of discomfort?”
- A former toilet-paper company that became a photography legend
- How a Tom Cruise film changed the way we take pictures
- Kodak’s ten-year terminal illness
- It’s not about quality, it’s about timing
- Nokia and the touchscreen of doom
Steve Sasson worked for Eastman Kodak company for over 35 years. During that time he designed and built the first digital camera and playback system.
Is the author of Changing Focus: Kodak and the Battle to Save a Great American Company. She is also the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Business Journalism at Washington & Lee University.
Is Kodak’s former Head of Market Intelligence. He also the former director of the Census Bureau, book author and current Chairman and Co-founder at Market Insight Corporation.
Was previously was a senior vice president at the Eastman Kodak Company. He was also the president of a division that was responsible for all of consumer digital imaging. He is currently Robert & Jane Cizik Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School.
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