When Polaroid was Apple

Written by Ashwin Rattan Tuesday, 12 February 2013 13:47
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 Christopher Bonanos is a New York based journalist who has written a fab new book called INSTANT: THE STORY OF POLAROID.


It's already been described as the technology book of the year and anyone with even a passing interest in technology, history, disruption, business and goodness knows even photography should check it out.


In and around a harsh east coast winter, Chris found time to share some thoughts with Searching Finance, just before the power went out.

How did you come to write this book?
I'd been thinking about book ideas for awhile, and my pet subject, if I have one, is the spot where technology meets the arts, and each enhances the other.
Polaroid existed right at that crossroads. And then, in 2008, when Polaroid quit making film, I wrote a little magazine story about the ripple effect it had on serious photographers who had come to depend on its analog products. That in turn sent me spinning down the rabbit hole, of tribute Websites and other histories, and within a few days I knew I'd found something really interesting—especially the more I read about Edwin Land, the company's founder and house genius.
It's also the right time to do this: There is a lot of hipster Polaroid love out there right now, maybe because people didn't know what they had till it was gone, and the history is recent enough that most of the key players are still around, and many of them were willing to be interviewed.
Without giving too much away, what's it all about?
Well, I like to say there are four books in there.
There's a fine-arts story, about a medium that Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol and Chuck Close all adored.
There's a technology story, about the madly complicated chemistry and physics and engineering that went into making a 60-second photo. (It's harder than you think.)
There's a business story, a cautionary tale about companies that get bound up in what they do and can't face the future.
And then there's a pop-culture story: this thing that we all grew up with and a lot of people absolutely adored, and had a special mystique. It lingers even now: Shoot an instant picture of a kid, hand it to him, and watch his face as he sees himself appear. Even after all these years, it's still like a magic trick. 

What message do you think someone high up at Microsoft, Apple, or Facebook might take from it?
There are three big lessons to be had.
One is this: Edwin Land once said his company's credo was "Don't do anything someone else can do," and that kept Polaroid on an upward trajectory for three decades. Even Eastman Kodak couldn't keep up, though it was many times the size of Polaroid, with vastly more money: When it introduced an instant-camera line, it ended up just ripping off Polaroid's system, and paid dearly. (Polaroid sued and won nearly a billion dollars in damages, and drove Kodak out of the instant-picture business altogether.) A unique idea is the bedrock of a tech company. If you're doing just some variant of a product everyone already has available, you might carve off a little market share, but you're never going to make--as Steve Jobs once put it--a dent in the universe. Polaroid photography was something utterly new, that thing you didn't know you wanted but had to have the moment you saw it.
Second: The product comes first, and no detail is too minute to be glossed over.
Land (like Steve Jobs) was obsessive about making a great product. He sweated the details of the SX-70 camera to an incredible degree, and did the same for the technology of the film. The product always came first, before anyone thought about how to sell it. He once said "marketing is what you do if your product is no good," and although that was exaggeration--he had great marketing people, who surely helped out--there's some truth to that. If the thing itself is great, most of your selling involves showing it to people intelligently, and then getting it in their hands once they say "oooh." (The only downside to this is that making a fantastic product can take a long time. One of Land's great failures was an instant-8-millimeter-movie system, called Polavision, that took sixteen years to get to market. By the time it was finally finished, Japanese videotape systems were becoming commonplace, and Polavision got clobbered.)
And the third is pretty well-established but bears repeating.
Tech companies, if they are not constantly leapfrogging their last innovation, get in deep trouble pretty fast. Polaroid, in the 1980s and early 1990s, knew that the digital revolution was coming, and had many projects in the works that would have made it a player in the new world. Its managers in that era were terrified of the filmless future, where profit margins would be much slimmer and less reliable. So a conservatism took hold, and instead of creating the product that would make film obsolete, Polaroid itself became obsolete. Steve Jobs, understood this, and I think his company still does; I'm not as sure about the others. It's as if Apple, in 2003, had seen the smash success of the iPod, and said "we're just going to get our costs down to a buck on these, and make a hundred million of them every year, and watch the cash roll in." Instead the company forged ahead on the iPhone, which essentially rendered the iPod obsolete, forgoing some of that easy money in favor of a much brighter future.
Microsoft has, for years, depended on the income from updates of Word and Excel and Windows and Xbox, but it hasn't offered us a really big new idea in a long time, and people have grown bearish on the company in the past few years. It does seem to be waking up to that realization, though, and Microsoft appears to be trying to offer something fresh again. I'm very interested to see how that goes.
Finally, do you have a message for all your readers in the UK?

I might also add --that Polaroid had its own a transatlantic "special relationship."
Starting in the early sixties, many of its products were made in Scotland, in the industrial area called the Vale of Leven. Polaroid built very large factories there to make cameras and polarized sunglasses. Often, the company would use the factories in Massachusetts as a kind of pilot program, to work out the bugs in production close to home, and then scale everything up for the long term in Scotland. There are lots of droll stories about the culture clashes that occurred when rather traditional (and often Socialist) rural Scots employees first encountered their go-getter American managers.
To order the book, as all good people are doing, click here.
To follow the book blog,click here
More about Christopher (in his own words)

My name is Christopher Bonanos, and I wrote INSTANT: THE STORY OF POLAROID.


In my daily life, I’m an editor at New York magazine, where I work on culture coverage (theater, art, classical music, architecture) and also some other subjects, like urbanism and real estate.

I’ve been there since 1993, which is so long ago that when I started I did not have a computer on my desk. I write for the magazine, too, on subjects as various as One World Trade Centerthe stuff on the bottom of New York Harbor, and bad bagels. Also, a tiny story I published in New York in 2008 was the germ of this book.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 February 2013 14:25

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