How Kodak Went From Industry Giant to Essentially Nonexistent

If you're older than about 30 or so, you probably remember just how unbelievably ubiquitous Kodak was at one time, making their eventual fall all the most extreme in retrospect. This great video takes a look at the fascinating history behind the rise and fall of what was once a titan of the photo industry. 

Coming to you from Cheddar, this great video goes behind the scenes of Kodak's rise and fall in the photo industry. There was a time when the company was so unbelievably omnipresent that an experience that was deemed worthwhile enough to be immortalized in a photograph was called a "Kodak moment." Given that level of presence not just in the professional and consumer photo industry, but in broader culture, it's a bit hard to believe that the company is essentially nonexistent now, but once you dive into its history, you can almost point to the exact day in history they sealed their fate. That day is when they invented the world's first digital camera over 40 years ago, but chose to sit on the technology out of fear of cannibalizing their own film sales. It's a fascinating story and well worth the watch. 

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8 Comments

Rob Mitchell's picture

Bit ike Tesla will ;)

Benoit Pigeon's picture

More like Apple asking more $ for less product. Kodak dictated and thought they could do whatever. Asking more money for less film with 110, Disc and again with APS made their competition bigger and stronger with each decade. 100% their fault, digital finished them.

Matthew Saville's picture

Both Tesla and Apple are on shaky ground, however, I think Apple is indeed at greater risk of significant losses, though not total collapse. All Tesla has to do is survive until EVs become more popular. Apple has to seriously reinvest in its quality control and true innovation, otherwise, the generic / knock-off products are going to continue eating them alive.

My father worked at Kodak from the 1940s to the mid-1980s, so I had a first-hand view into their products as they were being released. My first digital camera was the DC210 with a whopping *million* pixels, which I still have today.

I think Kodak should have followed the Intel/Celeron strategy: Open a separate operation with its own balance sheet that had to create profits monadically (against itself) instead of comparatively (against Kodak's film segment). At least then there would be something ready to fill the void when the film business collapsed. I think today we could be reading about Kodak's incredible K850 camera instead of Nikon's D850.

Matthew Saville's picture

I've commented on this subject before with the following anecdote, which I think is very interesting, and also corroborates a bit:

I know someone who worked in Silicon Valley in the 90's and 2000's, and was basically a professional "brainstormer" that huge international companies such as Kodak would bring in to help them innovate. The team came up with a proposal for Kodak, proposed directly to whoever was the CEO or president at the time, about what would soon be possible with digital cameras. They highlighted the advantages of digital being its immediacy, and how you could go from capture to print almost effortlessly compared to a film workflow. Shoot, download, print. This was revolutionary for the early/mid 90's, or whenever it was.

The head honcho at Kodak essentially said, "ehh, this isn't going to take off. The quality is terrible so it doesn't matter how fast or easy it is. Our customers want the high-quality products that we do best, film, and that will always be our strongest market."

OOPS.

So, even faced with a proposal that continued in their line of "people want physical prints/products" ...Kodak was still being stubborn, as late as the mid 90's. In short, as this video concludes, they shot themselves in the foot, repeatedly, until it was too late.

So, who cares?

Really, what everyone wants to know is, can the same happen for Canon or Nikon?

The answer is, probably not, because the transition from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera is absolutely dwarfed by the difference between film and digital. I'll say it again: Mirrorless, or to be precise a "late to the game" business tactic, cannot possibly be what sinks Canon or Nikon.

What COULD sink either Canon or Nikon, however, is their stubbornness with being competitive in general. Canon and Nikon's entry-level mirrorless bodies are frustrating many users, compared to an A7III or A7RIII. But this is a problem that Canon has had for decades- they're number one in the market, so they play hardball in order to sell more cameras. They literally put an "L" (luxury) and a sexy red ring on their best lenses, to help you covet them.

Still, I don't think this will be the donwfall of Canon (or Nikon) either. I think they'll be just fine. The biggest enemy is the one that ALL camera companies have to face: the cell phone camera, and the fact that, as this video points out, most people don't care anymore, an iPhone or a Google Pixel is more than good enough for all their basic picture-taking needs. Cameras are going to be relegated to a specialized geek hobby, just like all the other "tech toys" that people are into, ...and legit professionals who have a job to do.

TLDR, this is an interesting history lesson, however as much as I joke about Canon or Nikon "pulling a Kodak", it's not gonna happen.

Gary Pageau's picture

*Sigh* This is a very lightweight analysis of the situation with Eastman Kodak. Fujifilm in Tokyo faced the same situation but pivoted successfully. The problem wasn't that Kodak didn't see the potential in digital cameras; the problem was there wasn't - and still isn't - high margins in the part of consumer market Kodak had access to. Film and paper have enormous high margins, and shareholders were demanding a return on this investment.

Kodak led the way - and was probably too early - in some areas. For one thing, they co-developed the OLED screen, and even tried to become an OEM supplier of screens. Kodak even put an OLED screen on a digital camera, long before one appeared on a smartphone.

At its core, Kodak was a chemicals company with world-class expertise in coating materials at high speed, in total darkness, with near-perfect quality. They ran out of things to coat. Meanwhile, Fujifilm has pivoted to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, while keeping its photography business alive and well.

Eastman Kodak Co. is still around, a graphic arts company with a market cap of $133 million. There is also Kodak Alaris, which is a separate company spun off from EK, marketing Kodak professional film and software, kiosks, Kodak Moments app, etc.

Printing pictures is still a multi-billion-dollar business, too.

Ansel Spear's picture

I found the books on his desk facing towards him such an odd artistic choice. It distracted me so much that I couldn't concentrate on what he had to say. :-)

This is a rather cheap and arrogant shot on the basis of "hindsight's 20/20".
Given the profitability of film at the time, Wall Street in its short-sightedness wouldn't allow a company to spend research dollars at large scale on something else. It's hard to fathom any management team that would have acted differently in this situation. This is rather what happens when a business gets disrupted. We see that everyday in books, music, movies, media, cars, travel, etc. Very few, if any, of the existing heavyweights survive. To essentially say that "the company was stupid and screwed it up" is cheap and unfair.