Why Printing Photos Could Be Digital's - And Kodak's - Future

Over are the days of having your film processed at the local drug store. That’s blatantly clear. But is print really dead? It might just be dormant until someone wakes it up with something new and fresh. This line of questioning boils down to one company – Kodak.

Very seldom do we stumble across a story like Kodak’s. Kodak is an American technology corporation that led the market in sales for all photo related products for nearly 100 years – specifically photographic film and print. Yet in 2012, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and since then has recorded consecutive losses. Where did it all go wrong for Kodak? Is there still an opportunity for riches in photo sharing, storing, and printing? There very well may be – if not for Kodak, then perhaps for someone else.

The Good Old Days

Uncovering opportunity sometimes requires a bit of digging into the past, and Kodak’s past is quite intriguing in understanding how the photo printing market changed. The company, which was founded in 1888, would eventually be one of America’s iconic mega corporations.

In 1976, it had an 89% market share in photographic film sales and 85% in camera sales across the US. The company would be a leader in photo related technology, and in 1975 Kodak would develop the first digital camera. The product, revolutionary at the time, would launch photography into a quantum leap, one that would unfortunately leave its creator Kodak in the dust.

When Kodak created the digital camera in 1975, it knew very well that it held the secret sauce to its own demise. For many years following its creation, the digital camera was pulled from any of Kodak’s product launches for fear it would turn their business inside out. By 1990, the shift to digital was seemingly inevitable, prompting Kodak to develop a strategy that would transform their entire business.

In addition to producing digital cameras for Apple, Kodak CEO George Fisher reached out to Microsoft to discuss production of more integrated technologies. The integration with companies like Microsoft never happened, and the switch to digital lagged for nearly a decade. By early 2000, the demand for photo film dried up and sales dropped dramatically.

The Digital Era

In a last ditch effort, Kodak aggressively moved to digital with its EasyShare line of digital cameras. The company would introduce small printer docks that allowed consumers to quickly print their photos. By 2005, Kodak was a contender again, with a 40% increase in digital camera sales. Unfortunately, the tide would turn once more as competition from other producers, such as Sony, would drive down prices, causing Kodak to sell their digital cameras at a loss.

Coupled with continued losses in photographic film, Kodak was once again facing difficult times.  A new CEO meant a new strategy, so Kodak decided to move away from digital cameras and right into digital printing. Kodak’s main objective was to rival HP by selling expensive printers with inexpensive cartridge refills. The strategy failed miserably, and in September 2012, the company announced it was out of the consumer inkjet market.

Typically, hidden behind this many failures is at the very least a sliver of opportunity. So where’s the opportunity today? If not for Kodak, then for some start-up with an innovative way to store, manage, and print your personal photographs more effectively.

New Opportunities

More photos are taken today than ever before. The casual photographer can be an 8-year old, simply because they have a mobile device – a world Kodak and others failed to imagine. This abundance of photos creates a problem and forces many to buy external hard drives or cloud space to store their photos without ever organizing or printing them.

Online companies such as Flickr, Picasa, Shutterfly, and Instagram all provide a part-solution to a multi-faceted problem, but neither of them has provided a complete solution. Even Apple’s iPhoto app, which can fulfill most needs with its capacity to store, organize, edit, and print, has a limited reach as it is only available to Mac users.

Nonetheless, whether it's Picasa or iPhoto, the inconvenience of printing remains a problem. Even if online companies allow you to design cool albums or invitations, you still need to have them shipped to your door. And even if iPhoto allows you to print, you still need a good printer and some slick expensive photo paper.

Is print really dead, or just not convenient at the moment? Or perhaps there is no opportunity behind the complexity of how people take, share, store, or print their photographs. It may very well be that photo printing is dead and that Kodak’s demise was not entirely due to inept management or failed strategies. Maybe the world said goodbye to photo printing because it’s no longer needed or wanted. Or maybe the world has so many pix; it’s just a matter of time before we decide to print some again.

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