I was just reading the book “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” by Christopher Bonanos that recounted the founding, rise, and eventual decline of Polaroid. Once a company of great ingenuity, with a corporate culture that can truly be considered innovative (and unusual), Polaroid has suffered several setbacks in the last two decades, and is now a mere shadow of its former self. It didn’t have to be that way, but that was how it happened. In many ways, seeing the recent iPhone 5 debacle unfold before my eyes, I cannot help but feel like this is Apple’s ‘Polaroid’ moment. The parallels are eerie, and I will lay them out here.
Before we jump too far ahead, let’s talk about the rise of each company. In each case, a visionary (Edwin Land v. Steve Jobs) creates a company, selling a product (polarizers v. GUI computer) that found great utility in a changing world (WWII v. tech boom). Each man was obsessed with the intersection between science and art, and exerted inordinate amount of control over the running of the company (in particular, from a design perspective). Each was a larger-than-life character that drove the ‘suits’ in the company crazy. Both companies then launched products that deviated from the traditional business (Polaroid camera v. iPod/iPhone/iPad) that become worldwide hits. In fact, one can say that each also invented a new segment of market (instant photography v. iPad tablet) that consumers did not hitherto realize they wanted. In industry-speak, these guys knew what the consumers wanted, before they themselves knew they wanted it.
Each man’s obsession with perfection is also remarkably similar. Most of our generation have heard about how Jobs terrorized employees into submission, honing the craft of product development to an art. Far fewer people know that, decades before Jobs, a similarly obsessive Edwin Land was brow-beating his employees and bending them to his will. When confronted by bean counters about the cost of leather coverings (which also contributed to more factory rejects) on the folding SX-70, he was reported to have said that the “camera deserves leather”. The amazing thing was that these same employees continue to respect and love the man, a testimony to their dedication to the cause, his great charisma, and their belief in him.
A feature of Land’s Polaroid is their annual shareholders’ meeting, which is more like a product unveiling event than a stuffy annual report. It’s not just that the unveiling is almost always a masterclass in showmanship, but these products were truly revolutionary, so much so that Life magazine featured Land on the cover of a 1972 issue. Now, where have we seen this before?
One might say that the seeds of Polaroid’s failure were planted long before Land’s abrupt departure in 1982. The debacle of Polavision notwithstanding, Polaroid’s dependence on one man was always going to be a problem. Land himself had a habit of hiring specialists, with himself as the hub of knowledge and innovation. It certainly helped that he could not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk – he was the holder of 535 US patents! Such a company worked extremely efficiently, almost like a planned economy. And just as in such an economy, the person in the driving seat determines entirely the fate of the company. There are certainly plenty of stories of Steve Job’s legendary control over his own company. In such a working environment, it is possible for one man to dream up, to quote Land, “the nearly impossible” based on nothing but his instincts and to make it happen. But the fatal flaw of such an arrangement is that the company depends too heavily on a single person, and any of his missteps, and worse, his departure from the helm, can cause the wheel to come undone.
That was what we saw with Polaroid, where after 1982 not a single significant product was released. Land was forced to step down as President of Polaroid partly as a result of the failure of Polavision, and he was succeeded by Bill McCune, an ‘operations guy’ (just like Tim Cook!). Later, like a petulant child, he left the company after a fight with McCune concerning the development of the so-called ‘Clamshell’ camera. Despite McCune’s best efforts, Polaroid without Land was simply not the same company. Even after its received a handout of almost a billion dollars from Kodak for infringement on their instant photography IP (just as Samsung had to pay Apple), the company managed to run itself into the ground, with the brand being continually tarnished by cheap, plastic-lensed cameras like Pronto! and OneStep. The great irony is that the reputation Land tried to cultivate for Polaroid, as a superior quality film that is also instant, became lost in this poorly-advised attempt to expand the market.
The worry for Apple, one year after the death of its founder and visionary, is that it will go down the path of Polaroid. Churning out product after product works well in the short run, but the brand name is an intangible thing that can often be worth much more than mere sales. The rush to market has seen a rise in the number of products (iPad mini, anyone?) that seems to be less cohesive than previous releases. The release of a half-baked maps system in a buggy iOS 6 prompts more concern about the slipping standards of the company. One can only hope that, with the benefit of hindsight, the Apple guys can pull it together, and focus more on the quality of their products, and not just on profits. As one Steve (Denning) writes of another (Jobs), someone must take Jobs place to stop the erosion of the Apple brand before it is too late.