How Kodak invented digital photography but went bankrupt

Eastman Kodak employee Steven Sasson invented the digital camera — in the mid 1970s. Management at the time were not impressed:

“They were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set,” he said. “Print had been with us for over 100 years, no one was complaining about prints, they were very inexpensive, and so why would anyone want to look at their picture on a television set?”

Sasson correctly predicted that digital would be competitive with film in resolution around 15-20 years later, but of course nobody in management was ready to plan for that day. Even when they build a working 1.2 megapixel digital SLR in 1989, the marketing department said they wouldn’t sell them because it would eat into film sales.

Kodak Brownie Target Six-20
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Kodak wasn’t always that way. Back when it was founded, it was like a modern startup — focused on the future, unconcerned with staying compatible with old ways of working. So much so that the company used a different calendar — the Cotsworth International Fixed Calendar with 13 months of 28 days. George Eastman was a big fan of calendar reform.

But of course, by the 1970s Eastman was gone, the company had settled into comfortable dominance of chemical photography, and in 1989 even Eastman’s calendar was abandoned.

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In the end Kodak tried making digital cameras. During the 90s, they made excellent high-end digital cameras. Some models even ran an OS called Digita which allowed the cameras to run apps, including DOOM, and as recently as 2006 Kodak were the #1 seller of digital cameras.

Unfortunately, some time in the late 90s they made some terrible decisions. One was to get in bed with Microsoft — Kodak’s Imaging for Windows and color profiling tools (KCMS) got bundled into Windows for a couple of releases, killing the company’s ability to sell commercial versions. As usual, Microsoft only wanted the patent licenses — they wrote their own replacements, Kodak’s software was dumped from Windows XP, and that was another Kodak product line killed.

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The other big mistake Kodak made was to chase the low end of the digital camera market. By the 2000s, they were churning out indifferent compact cameras which couldn’t compete with models from Canon and other long-time camera manufacturers.

They eventually quit making digital cameras in 2012, shortly before going bankrupt.