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What Ended Kodak’s Moment?

Kodak is going bankrupt not because it failed to anticipate the shift from analogue to digital, but because it failed to understand why people take photographs in the digital age.

by David Glance On January 12, 2012

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According to the Wall Street Journal, camera manufacturer Kodak is preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, following a long struggle to maintain any sort of viable business. The announcement has prompted some commentators to claim that Kodak’s near-demise has been brought on by:

  • a failure to innovate, or
  • a failure to anticipate the shift from analogue to digital cameras, or
  • a failure to compete with the rise of cameras in mobile phones.

Actually, none of these claims are true. Where Kodak did fail is in not understanding what people take photographs for, and what they do with photos once they have taken them.

Before looking at what people actually take photos for, and how Kodak got it wrong, let’s look at the two reasons others have given for Kodak’s failure: that the camera in phones has replaced the stand-alone camera, and that Kodak failed to innovate.

‘The dedicated camera is dead’

In an article for ReadWriteWeb, tech columnist John Paul Titlow claims Kodak is failing because of the dominance of camera phones. In the article, Titlow uses a graph (see below) from photo sharing site Flickr, showing the growth in popularity of the iPhone camera over several digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras.

Unfortunately this graph doesn’t tell the whole story. I downloaded Flickr data and analysed the number of items uploaded to Flickr over the past year for several popular camera and phone manufacturers.

The charts below show that images taken with camera phones only represent approximately 3% of the total. The actual number may be a little higher because Flickr can’t always identify the type of camera that has taken the image, but it’s still a very small percentage of the overall whole.

Origin of Flickr.com photos, by camera manufacturer.

The other thing to note is that Kodak cameras are only responsible for 6% of images overall and that Canon and Nikon are by far the most dominant players in this market.

(Admittedly, the number of images on Flickr is about 5% of those on Facebook. It would be interesting to repeat this analysis using Facebook data, but there is no reason to believe the results would be substantially different.)

Origin of Flickr.com photos, by camera type.

‘Kodak failed to innovate’

Kodak’s financial problems aren’t necessarily due to a failure to innovate, or a failure to recognise the shift from print to digital photography. In fact, Kodak has been involved in the rise of digital cameras at virtually every step:

One of Kodak’s chief assets is its collection of patents, which company executives have been trying to sell. Kodak has also been pursuing other companies – including phone manufacturers Apple and Research in Motion – for infringing their patents on the ability to preview photos on their phones.

The first digital camera, designed in 1975, used cassette tapes to store images.

Why people take photographs and what they do with them

Where Kodak got it wrong was its perception that people were still taking photographs which they would then print. But this is increasingly no longer the case. From dedicated photo print shops to automated kiosks, Kodak persisted with this notion for longer than it should have. A large part of the company’s more recent business strategy has focused on printers and ink. But here, as with their digital cameras, Kodak only holds a small market share – roughly 2.6%.

In the days of film cameras, personal photography was principally about holding on to personal memories, with photos usually ending up in a shoebox. But recent research by anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists suggests personal photography has moved from being mostly a tool for remembering, to one of emphasising communication and our individual identities. As with most change, researchers have noted this switch most prominently in teenagers and young adults.

Photography was once about saving personal memories.

This shift has been supported by the changes in underlying technology and the advent of “frictionless” sharing of photos and video via social network platforms. In the context of photography, “frictionless sharing” means minimising the number of steps between taking a photo and sharing it via a social network platform. But in terms of technology, the real shift came when camera phones (in particular) reached a certain quality.

Many of the cameras found on today’s phones are at least five Megapixels. For people making a decision between using their phone and bringing along a dedicated point-and-click camera, this five Megapixel resolution probably represents the tipping point in favour of the phone.

But as we have seen with the data from Flickr, the move to the camera phone is still gathering momentum and other digital cameras are still popular.

Frictionless photo sharing

The real accelerator for frictionless sharing of photos has been the ability to instantly upload photographs to social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and to blog software such as Posterous and Tumblr. The iPhone, in particular, has popularised specialised photo sharing apps such as Instagram and Hipstamatic.

Sharing a photo in this way is more about communication and less about remembering. The photo usually has some commentary (“Miserable in New York today.”) and is “liked” and commented on by friends and others with whom it is shared.

Another important part of photography’s shift from memory tool to communication medium is that the photos are purposely temporary. The sheer volume of photographs taken and uploaded by individuals limits the shelf-life of these photos.

iPhone apps, such as Hipstamatic, are driving a change in the way we share photos.

Of course this may change with features such as Facebook’s timeline, which attempts to make it much easier to access photos for the purpose of remembering.

(It’s worth noting that in 2011, approximately 70 billion photographs were uploaded to Facebook, with some estimates putting that figure closer to 100 billion photographs. Either way, Facebook is the largest photo sharing site by a considerable margin.)

It is hard to see a role for Kodak in all of this. Even with a company restructure, they would still be competing with companies such as Nikon and Canon; companies which are much stronger in the hardware and technology markets.

The real value in photography today is the software and platforms used for sharing and distribution. Kodak would need to pull off a miracle to become a major player in this space.

In all likelihood, Kodak’s moment might have passed.

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Image Credits: Flickr CC Brett Jordan (BY), ctruongngoc (BY-NC-SA), freestockimages (BY), Nester (BY) / Charts by David Glance

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Related article: The Faux-Vintage Photo

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