Kodak: It’s Time To Go Invisible

Kodak, let us admit, is doomed. Founded over a century ago, it has dominated film for as long as film has existed, but now that film is on the verge of ceasing to exist, they have very little to dominate. They’re short on cash and while they deny plans to file for bankruptcy, many question whether they will have the luxury of choice a few years from now.

My first preference for the preservation of this company would be for them to sell off their patents and focus on film until they’re buried by progress. That’d be Kodak going out with its boots on, so to speak. But I doubt that’s going to happen.

What needs to happen instead is Kodak needs to abandon any pretense of being a household word. They’ve had a good run — for an entire century their name has been synonymous with film. But it will never be as recognizable again. So why throw money away on an entire division creating low-margin, unoriginal devices that are going to be obsolete in a few months and duplicated by pirate OEMs anyway? No, Kodak needs to go invisible.

For a long time Kodak was the leader in photographic innovation. They even invented their own destroyer, a la Oedipus Rex: they were among the first producing digital cameras. Why aren’t they now? Why is the sensor inside the iPhone 4S a Sony instead of a Kodak?

Listen, Kodak. I like a couple of your cameras. That’s not the issue. The issue is that you’re selling a product that everyone gets for free when they buy a smartphone, digital picture frames are a joke, and printing is becoming more and more something that happens in a ShutterFly facility, not at home — if it happens at all. Producing products is for companies like Apple and Canon. You don’t want to compete with them.

And you don’t have to. You’ve got top-notch research facilities churning out patents and inventions all over the place. Pick a few niches and become indispensible. I’m not quite saying be a patent troll. I’m saying you should be the ones HTC goes to when they want to get an edge over the rest in the camera department. What will you make? Low-noise sensors? Image compression algorithms? Lens coatings? High-speed imaging interfaces? I don’t know. Just pick something other than a heap of consumer products in the process of being eliminated by the march of progress. You don’t see IBM trying to compete with Dell.

One thing: in order to keep the Kodak brand alive, you should always be in the business of making real things. But make the printer head, not the printer. Make the sensor, not the camera. Make it clear that if it’s not powered by Kodak, it’s a piece of junk. You’ve already been half-forced to this position, so just go all the way. You don’t need the trappings of a consumer tech company weighing you down. You’re Kodak, for god’s sake. Act like it.

If all goes well, you’ll emerge from these hard times a leaner, more focused company, with a sack full of amazing patents and a stable of clients who wouldn’t be able to compete without your technology. Is it a fantasy? Sure. But it’s better than the dreary, prosaic reality you’re living in now. At least strike out swinging.