Kodak Ektra smartphone tries to recapture some of a lost era in photography
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Photo Credit: Kodak

Photo Credit: Kodak

Kodak’s move to digital hasn’t been easy

Kodak’s transition to digital from print film has been a hard road since it invented the modern digital camera 41 years ago. In more recent years, the company has been able to use its brand name to recover some of that lost glamour (and profits). The company is debuting a new smartphone camera this month in partnership with the Bullitt Group, and has opened a pop up store in London, the Kodakery, to encourage early sales.

The Ektra, named for a 1941-vintage rangefinder camera, has 4K video, the Snapseed photo editor app preinstalled, and “phase detection auto focus (PDAF) & HDR imaging.” The rear camera is 21 megapixels, and the front 13 megapixels. Shutterbugs will likely enjoy the support for multiple photo apps on the device and advanced settings for shooting pictures.

The phone itself will run on Android 6.0.1, coming with 3GB RAM and 32GB memory with an option to upgrade to 128GB and fast-charge technology, according to Engadget.

The Kodakery at 70 Berwick in Soho, London. Credit: Kodak

The Kodakery at 70 Berwick in Soho, London. Credit: Kodak

Preorders are expected to ship later this month, in time for Christmas. And the device will formally launch in Germany on December 9 at EUR 499. Kodak originally said it had “no plans” to release the device in the US, but that has changed. Once it’s available in the US, in April, it will be priced at $550. Its retro case is meant to evoke a camera rather than a phone, not surprising given how much the company is banking on the slogan, “Camera first, phone second,” to win over customers.

Camera first, phone second

Kodak doesn’t intend to compete with Apple and Google for picture quality, reports The Verge, instead opting for, “lifestyle, simplicity, and a massive camera bump.”

And this is not Kodak’s first foray into the market. It unveiled the IM5 last year, also alongside Bullitt, which actually manufacturers the phone around the Kodak camera. The IM5 is a mid-range model, one that Trusted Reviews notes sit not entirely comfortably between the smartphone it’s priced as and the go-to camera of choice its makers want it to be. The Ektra, in contrast, makes it pretty clear that it’s a camera with a phone, per the Kodak branding tagline.

If it seems like Kodak is struggling to find middle ground, it’s because the company has no smartphone experience. It, like every other film company in the world, has had to adjust its business model in short order to digital demands, and has suffered more than others doing so.

Kodak has had to adjust its business model significantly with the advent of digital photography. Back when the company was much larger, it seemed unlikely this would come to pass, ever. A Kodak engineer, Steve Sasson, actually invented the digital camera in 1975. It used cassette tapes, weighted a hefty 8 pounds, and had a 0.01 megapixel capacity – and that was only in black and white. (Kodak later invented the first full megapixel camera as well, in 1986.)

The original digital camera, made by Kodak. Photo Credit: Plugged In / Kodak

The original digital camera, made by Kodak. Photo Credit: Plugged In / Kodak

Kodak didn’t put too much stock into this breakthrough at first. Sasson’s own account, relayed to The New York Times last year, was that his project was treated as a sideshow: “They were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set.”

Though, as Sasson earlier wrote in 2007, “We were looking at it as a distant possibility …. in reality, we had no idea.”

That attitude changed, very much so, but it didn’t change fast enough as photography became a digital medium in less than a generation.

Film first, camera second

Even in the 1970s, there were executives at the company who saw where events were headed. A company study in 1979 predicted that digital would replace print film by 2010. As The Economist notes, its author, Lawrence Matterson, was only a few years off. The analogue camera was already in a tailspin by 2005, sooner than anticipated.

Initially, it is true Kodak didn’t see much of a future for digital, and continued to emphasize its traditional businesses even as rivals, like Fujifilm, bet heavily on digital. But Kodak also invested heavily in the technology, and in the mid-2000s was actually the leading player in the digital recording device market.

The problem wasn’t just the speed with which the digital revolution occurred, or those in the corporate culture hostile to digital from the get go. Not only was digital less profitable overall for Kodak than analogue, but Kodak devices had to compete with the reality that most people did not want or need high-end, stand-alone cameras when their phones increasingly sufficed. You couldn’t send texts or surf the web on a camera, after all. And in a move it would come to regret, Kodak pioneered image sharing on its devices but didn’t push them going ahead. In hindsight, it seems obvious that these would become standard features, but at the time, they were clunky and thought to be unappreciated.

Kodak’s own camera device sales were not as important as the silver-halide film stock itself was: 60% of Kodak profits in 2000 were from that alone. The cameras the company advertised the world over were vehicles for the film sales, popular because they were cheap and usable. But as good as Kodak was at making and marketing the film, it just didn’t have anyone to sell it to anymore once scientific, military, and commercial preferences shifted in the 2000s. It was a challenge its competitors faced, too, and others did better than most. Fujifilm rode the digital wave to success, and it hasn’t been trying to break into the smartphone user market, except to sell printers to them.

There is still room for those devices, but dedicated copiers and printers, which Kodak excelled in building and had high hopes for, according to Matteson, lost out to smartphones and digital storage in the 2000s. So Kodak’s core businesses were still unprepared for the larger market shift in the industry to digital, and this contributed to its bankruptcy filing in 2012. (Restructuring and asset sales – including patent rights worth half a billion dollars – allowed Kodak to emerge from bankruptcy.) That year, the company also discontinued manufacturing digital cameras after its share of worldwide sales fell off.

The new Ektra's namesake recalls happier days for Kodak. Photo Credit: iCollector.com

The new Ektra’s namesake recalls happier days for Kodak. Photo Credit: iCollector.com

It has been a stark generational shift. My baby pictures from the 1980s are like my parents’ own baby photos from the 1950s, hard copies in bound photo albums. My friends my age who started having kids in the 2010s keep those babies’ pictures on Facebook and Flickr. They don’t print them out. They don’t print out vacation and party pictures, either.

Yet while print is now regarded as a realm for film purists, Kodak has not given up on the medium that once made it the largest photographic company in the US, if not the world. For Cyber Monday, it offered 150 prints with every pre-order. And the Ektra ships with another app, Print, for just what the name suggests.

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