Why I don’t feel sorry for Kodak

It was all over the news today – Kodak has finally filed for bankruptcy protection.

Nobody was really surprised. Kodak has been on a decline since the beginning of the 2000s as digital cameras began to supercede film cameras. Unlike the recent passing of Steve Jobs, I haven’t seen many people on my social media networks lamenting the loss of the company that popularized photography. Looks like people just aren’t shedding a tear for Kodak.

While I do feel sorry for the Kodak employees and pensioners who face an uncertain future, they had little say in how the company was run to the ground by their management over the past few decades. Yes, Kodak film allowed for the creation of millions of amazing images, but in my lifetime, Kodak didn’t care for the consumer very much.

I’m normally a very nostalgic guy, and I will always remember walking past the bright yellow decor of film-development stores that were sponsored by Kodak in the 1980s. It was always fascinating to see how long strips of negatives would pass through the innards of the gigantic machine which would spit out 3R-sized color photos.

However Kodak left more of a bitter taste in my mouth than nostalgia is worth. Let me tell you why.

1. Film was ridiculously overpriced.

When I started getting into photography in the late 1990s, it was such an expensive hobby. If I remember correctly, it was $5 per roll of film, $10 to develop a roll of film and 30 cents to print each photo in 4R size. So to shoot a roll of 36 exposures would easily cost you $25 before inflation.

That’s not counting the cost of batteries as film cameras were power guzzlers – remember the sound of film being rewound in a compact camera? Today you can shoot thousands of photos without considering the cost – it costs just about nothing on the digital platform. But we always had to consider the cost of reloading each roll of film.

You can argue that it forced us to become better photographers when we didn’t waste film, but I can also argue that Kodak profited handsomely from enthusiast photographers.

Kodak and other film makers never really sought to lower the cost of film. The centuries-old method of using silver halide worked for them until digital overtook it with dazzling speed (actually it took about 5 years for digital to go into the mainstream from the time the first decent digicams appeared in the early 2000s).

2. Kodak never understood digital, and still doesn’t

As a tech writer in the mid-2000s, I always groaned when Kodak’s PR agency would pitch their latest digicams for a review. Compared to current models of the day from Canon and Olympus, Kodak’s digital cameras often seemed like backward and ugly cousins. And their image quality was never up to par. I could be wrong, but they were probably re-branded OEM digital cameras. For a company that invented digital cameras, they put little effort and money in advancing the technology.

As film development stores began to shutter down rapidly, I didn’t see Kodak doing anything significant to save their retail partners.The shopkeepers were helpless as the landscape shifted and so was their principal supplier.

I remember it was so expensive to request for film negatives to be converted to a digital format. I tried it for a few rolls after a professional shoot and the quality of the scan was not fantastic. Where was Kodak then? Still trying to sell more Portra film to professionals, and over-saturated Gold label films to clueless tourists.

If you read any business story on Kodak’s decline, you’ll see so many other ways that they failed to capitalize on the digital tsunami. It’s not that they didn’t have the money to invest,  (especially at their peak in the 1990s), but like many legacy companies, they clung on to the past desperately and turned their noses at consumers. We just wanted a better solution instead of having to panic every time our film canisters or strips became accidentally exposed to the sun.

I embraced digital photography the minute I discovered it, and was over the moon when digicams finally reached an acceptable level of quality compared to film (that was about 2007 if I remember correctly, while dSLRs achieved that about 2004 with the Canon 1D Mark II). When I used the Canon 1D Mk II, my first 1GB memory card cost a whopping $400, but it paid for itself quickly – that card was approximately the cost of 16 rolls of film (or 576 exposures) and I shot thousands of photos in a few weeks.

It was sad at first to see how Kodak failed to change itself for the times (in contrast to its greatest nemesis Fujifilm), but after a while, one didn’t care for the company at all. It looks like after this bankruptcy protection, Kodak wants to focus on digital printing. That’s another silly move – everyone in developed countries are gradually moving to ebooks and Zinio mags on tablets, and we’re now sharing photos on Facebook folders…thousands of them, all for free. Who will pay for digital printing in the future?

Like the cliche goes, change is a constant, and we have no choice but to embrace change. If you work in a company that doesn’t embrace change, please take a look around and see if you can get out before the company becomes obsolete by its own choice or ignorance.

Kodak may emerge from its bankruptcy protection a better company, but the young people of today don’t even know how iconic it once was. Perhaps I should be sad for the past, but that feeling just isn’t happening.

8 Replies to “Why I don’t feel sorry for Kodak”

  1. Yup, a case of failing to keep up with the times…

    From the show “Other People’s Money”, Danny Devito was right – it doesn’t matter if a company makes the best horse buggy whips – if it does not change, it will be superceded by technology and changing demographic needs…

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  4. Why I feel sorry for you – for NOT understanding digital storage/archive technology will not last 100 year or even 50 years..
    Film and print will outlast ANY digital storage technology.

    1. Wallace – It’s not proven that digital storage will not last forever. All storage media, be it digital or analog, require good storage conditions (Eg. low humidity, no excessive shock etc). Digital media is moving towards flash storage which is dependent more on access frequency rather than physical longevity. You can put your thumb drive into a washing machine and chances are, it’ll still work.

  5. I feel sorry for you too for not understanding the concept of business. I see lot of frustration you experienced throughout the story and you blame it on kodak. Kodak was based on film heavily. It invented the digital camera but ditched it. Because it didnt want it to destroy its business. Can you imagine how hard it is to maneuver huge company like this? It had a harsh competition with other companies during digital camera craziness. Kodak tried so hard that it could not keep up with sony even when losing money. Changes does kill lot of lives, but people like you see it happen without feeling anything. That is sad. One day you are victor, but one day you a loser.

    1. James – I work in a technology company and I look after a business myself 🙂 Change is a constant, and one cannot just say if a company is too big to change. It’s the will to change that matters. Kodak could have led the change, but refused to because of poor management decisions. Of course I don’t feel sorry for them – the world is a better place with digital photography today. It’s cheaper, more accessible, and the image quality is incredible.

      Unless, of course, you’re a film fan.

  6. Wallace – It’s not proven that digital storage will not last forever. All storage media, be it digital or analog, require good storage conditions (Eg. low humidity, no excessive shock etc). Digital media is moving towards flash storage which is dependent more on access frequency rather than physical longevity. You can put your thumb drive into a washing machine and chances are, it’ll still work.

    James – I work in a technology company and I look after a business myself 🙂 Change is a constant, and one cannot just say if a company is too big to change. It’s the will to change that matters. Kodak could have led the change, but refused to because of poor management decisions. Of course I don’t feel sorry for them – the world is a better place with digital photography today. It’s cheaper, more accessible, and the image quality is incredible.

    Unless, of course, you’re a film fan.

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