14 Feb 2012

I wonder how Steven Sasson is feeling  today? You might be saying to yourself ‘Steven who?’ Back in 1975, Steven invented one of today's must have gadgets. By now, as you’re on a photography website, you’ve probably realised it was the Digital Camera. That 0.1 Megapixel B/W camera took 16 AA batteries, and processed images onto digital cassette tape (like audio cassettes but used for data) in 23 seconds. What might surprise you today, that probably wouldn’t have last week, was that he then worked for, and indeed still does, Kodak, who this week announced they were stopping manufacturing cameras. Yes, the company that invented the digital camera, and indeed pioneered film photography as we know it, will cease production of digital cameras in about 6 months time from now.

It’s a sad day for photography. This site was probably the first specialist Digital Camera site to publish the news. (I think CNET got it out before Point-n-shoot, but they’re a technology site in general, not a camera site).  If you look back at Eastman Kodak’s legacy, it’s like a virtual monopoly of the point and shoot photography market years ago. A century ago, you took your pictures on a Kodak Brownie which, in 1900, cost $1.00 (or 63p at today’s exchange rates), took them on Kodak film at 15c (10p), took it to the drugstore (chemist) who sent it to the Kodak Laboratory for developing (or if you developed your own film at home you used a Kodak developing machine) onto Kodak Photo Paper. Nearly every household in the western world has owned a Kodak camera at some time, and everyone has their own special ‘Kodak moment’.   I know I have mine, about using my parents instamatic without permission and getting into trouble.

In 1991 Kodak and Nikon produced the first Digital SLR cameras (1.5 Mp), and by 1994 the DCS 460 dSLR featured a then whopping 6 Mp resolution. By 2003 Kodak’s (now proprietary) dSLR had a jaw dropping 13.7 Mp sensor, (bigger than  some of today’s entry level dSLR’s). With such innovation, it’s surprising that Kodak pulled out of making professional cameras a while back. They also had some innovative point and shoot cameras, and the Easyshare range was the first digital camera range to have it’s own dedicated docking system. In the UK they produced an entry level 2 Mp camera with screen for £90.00, being the first major manufacturer to break the sub £100.00 price point for a 2 Mp model (my brother Mike’s first digital camera). Other innovations followed, such as the first compact camera with two lenses you swivelled round.

Today, Kodak has a bridge camera with a 26 X zoom and Raw image capture (like the dSLR’s use) at just £190.00, and were set to introduce a Wi-Fi camera later this year. They used high quality Schneider Kreuznach lenses in their top of the range models. It's true, some of their cameras weren’t great, but many were. I have a fantastic 12 Mp entry level digicam that I bought for £35.00 from Curry’s last year. I saw the same model for £20.00 on their sister company P.C. World’s website at the end of last year. It seems that no one wants to buy a Kodak camera these days, and that’s a shame.  And only last month they filed for bankruptcy protection (not actual bankruptcy as many wrongly assume) in the U.S. at the same time as filing lawsuits against Apple, Samsung, Fuji and HTC for breach of patents relating in the main to technology Kodak invented being used in smartphones without being licensed. This was seen by many as a desperate bid to get some money to stop the company going under. 

There are probably a thousand and one reasons and excuses as to why they’ll no longer make cameras, but it’s not our business to ascertain why this happened.  We just have to accept it. When Polaroid went bust it was a sad day, but the owners of the name originally licensed the name out to two different companies. Quality suffered, with reliability and image quality being the losers.

Today, things have changed and a reborn Polaroid have turned things around, and are about to release an Android powered optical zoom camera, as well as a 10 Mp digital camera that has a mini printer built in and will produce Polaroid sized prints. What would be a shame was if Kodak Digital Cameras just became a cheap licensee selling clone cameras that are identical to a dozen other brands in all but name

+. In the past Kodak certainly appeared to be as innovative as the new Polaroid appears to be striving to become. There’s several companies that used to make Digicams that realised all too late that the key to success was not only by getting your cameras reviewed by the major camera magazines and websites, (who wouldn’t review cheaper cameras, partly because some cameras weren’t very good, partly because the major brands had the review market sewn up, and partly because of snobbery) but also due to brand awareness and trust. Jenoptik, Digital Dream, Concord, Agfa (long before the name was re-licensed), Goodmans, Cool I Cam and several others all came and went, without producing any ground breaking or innovative cameras .

One thing, though, might stop the licensing of the Kodak name, money! Consider the heritage value of the likes of Jenoptik and Praktica.  It’s not really that high, compared to Kodak. Jena Optical licensed the Jenoptik brand name to a German retail group around the year 2000. They were able to license the name cheaply enough as it’s worldwide heritage was nowhere near as well-known as Kodak’s. Jenoptik's relatively low level of brand awareness amongst consumers probably led to it’s demise as the name was originally synomamous with enthusiasts cameras, and those camera enthusiasts wanted to buy an enthusiasts camera, not a cheap entry level  model. Kodak’s strong worldwide image, however, is based on everyday user friendly cameras and should be enough to overcome this. But the brand won’t come cheap. Kodak sold of some of it’s divisions last year in a bid to halt bankruptcy. Yet whilst some parts were successfully sold off, Kodak is still trying to sell other divisions.

The value of the Kodak brand is so high that the potential cost of licensing the brand might be too expensive. It would have to be a large electronics manufacturer with good retail connections, and that might prove tricky, as any major electronics  manufacturer with the capital will have a strong enough identity has already entered the digital camera market. The only major electronics manufacturer not in it already (if you don’t count camera phones) is Apple, whose brand identity is so strong worldwide they could easily bring out an Apple i-cam and it would sell in droves. Magazines and web sites would be falling over backwards to review it.  It’s a safer bet to say that what might happen is that the technology and designs announced at the CES trade fair last month will be sold off to other major manufactures to either release as their own, or incorporate the Kodak technology.

So it’s a sad day for just about the best known brand in the photography industry, and I for one will miss Kodak cameras.

Update: In 2013, JK Imaging licensed the Kodak name and produce a range a range of Kodak branded cameras, including high zoom bridge (50X) and compact system cameras.



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