The Kodak myth

Was Kodak too slow to adopt digital? An alternative narrative. From Shutter, by Lewis Collard.

I think it's time to kill the "Kodak is a cautionary tale about not moving with the times" narrative.

First, we shall take some examples of this meme in the wild. Secondly, I shall explain why it is false to fact. Thirdly, I shall explain what I think is the real reason that Kodak lost the digital camera wars.

First, the examples. From the New York Times in 2015:

Though Kodak did eventually market both professional and consumer cameras, it did not fully embrace digital photography until it was too late.

Another, from the BBC (from whom I expect better) in 2018:

"Kodak was famously slow to join the digital revolution, and its hesitation to leave behind its film heritage cost the company its market"

This was later edited to this (I suspect, but do not know, that it was at my prompting):

Kodak developed a digital camera in 1975, but decided not to commercialise the technology at the time, and its hesitation to leave behind its film heritage is thought by some to have contributed to it filing for bankruptcy protection years later in 2012.

Which of course gets repeated in literally every "thought" piece about businesses not adapting to the times fast enough:

After helping to build the boat, they decided not to hop on.

They went bust in 2012, after ignoring an enormous new disruptive market that they could have led in.

Smart businesses learned a fantastic lesson from this: don’t look at your emerging business through the same decision making lens as your core business.

It's a catchy narrative! And I also think it is false to fact, and should not be repeated. Let's do some history and facts!

Firstly, and as many of the people will know who read this, Kodak pioneered digital cameras in the 1970s. They did not quite invent the digital camera; that could be counted many ways, but they had a working prototype in 1975.

That Kodak failed to commercialise it does not stand up to scrutiny either.

Years ahead of anyone else, Kodak invented the first real digital SLR camera. I will define that as a camera that recorded digital images (not still video), with a single-lens-reflex body, which worked with lenses from an existing and widely-used camera system. It may have been limited to military use (though this is certainly not a failure to commercialise it, i.e. make money from it), it may have only just been practical enough for military use, but it existed, and it worked.

Kodak then followed this up with the first commercially-available digital SLR camera in 1991. That is, my previous definition of "real digital SLR", but one that anyone with enough money could call up the right person at Kodak and have one show up a short while later. Of course, that was a lot of money; $30,000 at the time, which is a staggering $56,500 in 2019 money. That was also a price worth paying when getting images from one place to another really matters, like for news reporting. Compare with the above claim from the BBC article about a failure to commercialise it; Kodak was the first company to release a commercially-available digital SLR camera!

From there, Kodak owned the professional digital camera market for about 8 years, bringing out increasingly compact, increasingly high-resolution, and increasingly practical cameras. I recommend Rob Galbraith's recollections here; it would be hard to overstate how dominant they were in digital photography in this era. It was only in 1999, with the introduction of Nikon's D1, that they lost their grip on the digital camera market.

All of these professional cameras were digital backs grafted on to Canon and Nikon film camera bodies. Behind that lies this significant fact: Kodak had significant digital camera expertise and the Japanese manufacturers did not!

But what of the consumer digital camera markets? Starting with the first two Apple QuickTake cameras, which were manufactured by Kodak and sold at a price that was entirely accessible to the upper end of the consumer market, through their DC series of compact cameras, and on to their EasyShare series of cameras from the very early 2000s onwards, Kodak was in fact very actively selling digital cameras to normal people, at prices that normal people could afford. They were not reluctant in this market; they were at the forefront of it.

None of this looks like a lack of foresight, or a failure to commercialise the technology they pioneered, or a company that did not adapt with the times and suffered for it.

So why did Kodak lose?

And here comes the narrative, which should be judged separately from the historical facts above.

I think this is why they lost: by the 1990s, Kodak was not capable of manufacturing a good camera.

Things could not have gone any differently; in their thirst to own the consumer film camera markets they lost all of the expertise that would have helped them make great cameras. Meanwhile, from the late 1950s onwards - the boundary is fuzzy, but a useful milestone would be 1959 with the introduction of the Nikon F - the various Japanese manufacturers went all-out making the greatest cameras that have ever been made. In fact, in everything other than the digital camera sensor, nearly every invention in photography from the Nikon F onwards which is still meaningful today (and taken for granted as just What Cameras Do) was either invented or made practical by engineers in Japan.

Consider: the first reliable and practical SLR (Nikon F, 1959), the first computer-controlled camera (Canon, 1978), the first autofocus camera (Konica, 1977), the first practical autofocus SLR camera (Minolta, 1985), the first practical ultra-high-speed SLR camera (Canon, 1972), the first SLR that behaves like any SLR you might use today (Canon, 1986). I could go on; what I hope this demonstrates was that in all those decades Kodak did not make a camera of any consequence.

Instead, Kodak put their efforts into making you pay more money for increasingly small amounts of film (126, 110, Disc, APS) in cheap cameras with poor optics. And it didn't matter! People took photos, people were happy, and Kodak raked it in for decades this way. This was a great business model! And I think getting photography into the hands of as many people as possible was a great thing (as an aside, if you hoped from the weird things I write and uncomfortably large collection of film cameras that some day I was going to write a rant about the Kids These Days with their selfies and their Instagrams and their YOLOs you guessed wrong).


The 1990s came around, and a window opened: digital camera sensors could be miniaturised to fit in a portable camera, and digital chips became small and powerful enough to process the images from them. Kodak was prepared to take advantage of this, and they did. They had literally, the dictionary, non-hyperbolic definition of literally, all the expertise in digital cameras. But they were not capable of manufacturing a good camera from the ground up. That their early digital SLRs were Kodak modules bolted onto Japanese Big Two cameras was not mere expediency, or cost-cutting, or friendly collaboration: Kodak did not have a choice. What else could they do, bolt a digital module onto an Instamatic?

This could only last for as long as the big Japanese manufacturers hadn't figured out how to make practical digital sensors and miniaturise their associated electronics - because when they had that nailed, they would be able to build a professional camera built from the ground up to be a digital camera. Nikon tried this with the E2 series; they were weird and never really caught on. Then in 1999, Nikon introduced one of the most important cameras ever made: the Nikon D1. From there, Nikon won the professional digital market for several years (with Canon catching up in 2001 with their EOS-1D).

And then the iPhone and its various apps, followed by the Android zerg rush, came along and ate everyone's lunch, then posted photos of those lunches on Instagram - but nobody saw that one coming.

In short, Kodak didn't lose because they did not see that the future was digital. That was very clear in, at the latest, the early 1990s, to anyone that was paying attention, and Kodak clearly was paying attention. They lost because they never made good film cameras!

And that, is a less catchy narrative. It doesn't pin the failure of Kodak to a moment in time, it doesn't carry some catchy moral about how businesses must adapt or die, ready-made for Medium thought-pieces and LinkedIn idiots. But that, I think, is what actually happened.

I welcome commentary and factual corrections - feel free to email me.