History is filled with stories of disruption. The Polaroid Corporation is one.
The Polaroid Corporation began its ascendency in Massachusetts around 1937. Polaroid was once described as a “juggernaut of invention”, the Apple of its time so to speak. Under the leadership of Edwin Land the Polaroid Corporation flourished.
Edwin Land was the inventor of polaroid filters, the process that lines up crystals of iodoquinine sulphate and embeds them in transparent plastic. The polarising film was used in a range of industries from 3-D movies, photographic filters, sunglasses, night-vision cameras. Polaroid even experimented with new ways of creating colour images which came good around 1963.
The late 1930s was an era of rapid development for chemistry. In 1938, German chemist Dr. Edith Weyde and Andre Rott invented a “diffusion transfer reversal” process. This was a method of transferring a negative image from photo-sensitive material (the negative) to non-photosensitive material (the positive image). This invention paved Polaroid’s way to the invention of the instant camera. It also led to the development of the first photocopiers.
It took Polaroid 20 years to arrive at the instant image camera.
The first Polaroid Land Camera delivery was a block of 57 units going on sale in 1958 and sold out within hours (think iPhone). Polaroid’s technology was embraced by a wide range of customers, including some of the greats of modern photography like Ansel Adams, Walker Evans and Andre Kertesz.
The Polaroid camera became a mainstay of scientific laboratories, who have been using it for quick documentation and measurement. Polaroid cameras made slides that were used in conference presentations when glass slides could not be produced quickly enough.
Electronics comes to market and started to dog Polaroid. In 1977, Polaroid announced the invention of the instant self-developing movie camera named “Polavision.” The rapid decline of the company began in 1977 with the introduction of the Polavision camera. At that time video-tape based cameras were close to monopolising the market.
Management failed to see the implications of this new video-tape disruptive technology. People no longer needed a physical product when it came to imagery. Many preferred to store images electronically and view them on electronic media, rather than have them in photo albums and boxes of negative and films.
The instant camera was also in rapid decline with the rise of the digital camera. Photographers were declaring “Film is dead”!
Polavision is widely seen as the swan song for Polaroid.
By the time Polaroid got into the digital camera business, it failed to capture a large market share. Its scanner lines, Polaroid SpiritScann using 35 mm film in 1999 and outputting to print in 2000 also saw heavy competition and was discontinued when it first declared bankruptcy in 2001 and again in 2009.
Between 2005 and 2009, the Polaroid went through six CEOs. By 2006, they stopped producing Land cameras altogether. By 2008, they stopped manufacturing film for Land cameras, which left a lot of owners without.
Fujifilm took over the manufacture of instant film that would fit the older 60s and 70s Land cameras. Fujifilm also discontinued the manufacture of instant film for Land cameras in 2016 due to declining sales.
An English company called “The Impossible Project” continues to manufacture and market colour and black and white film for the Polaroid 600 and SX-70 cameras and Land large format cameras up to 8 x 10. They also make printers for duplicating Polaroid film images. There are communities on the internet that annually celebrate the fate of Polaroid. The company itself limps on under reorganisation, now making small digital cameras and other equipment.
Polaroid’s failure is widely attributed to the failure of management to recognise the way the market was moving and to move with it, taking the difficult choice of letting go of a product that brought so much success, but now had reached the end of its life.
It always pays to revisit industry value chains to identify how the moving parts are moving, identifying any changes and how these changes impact on your own business value chain.