Polaroid, Apple’s spiritual successor

I just finished 2 books on the history of Polaroid 🌈*. A remarkable tech company with enormous success in consumer and industrial applications for decades. It’s also remarkable just how much Apple was influenced by Polaroid.

A brief history

As a child Edwin Land found a copy of the 1911 edition of Physical Optics, a textbook by the physicist Robert W. Wood. He obsessed over its contents, lingering on one chapter in particular: the polarization of light.

In 1928, Ed Land was 19 when he invented the first thin-sheet polarizer. He cofounded Land-Wheelwright Labs with a friend in 1932 after dropping out of Harvard. Their first products were polarized versions of headlights, sunglasses, etc.

They grew slowly with mostly small industrial contracts for 6 years, then reincorporated as Polaroid Corporation. During the war sales grew an order of magnitude, 80% of which went to the military for products like polarized goggles.

In 1943 Land came up with the idea for a film camera that can process right away instead of in a lab. R&D started immediately, but it wasn’t until 1948 their first camera, the Model 95, was released. It went on to sell 900k units in 5 years.

The 95 was a classic disruptive innovation: worse quality than traditional film cams, dismissed as not “real” photography, but appealing to a new market of customers. And profitable: camera for $90, film packages with 60% gross margins.

With all the new cash flow, they could plow it back into R&D. To Land, they had “. . . created an environment where a man was expected to sit and think for two years.”

Polaroid’s growth lasted decades longer, peaking in the ’80s right when, ironically, they won an historic years-long lawsuit against Kodak for patent infringement.

Apple, the spiritual successor

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Back to the Apple comparison. The similarities are clear: from values, to marketing, to org structure, to product launches and demos.

Just like Jobs, Land was at the top of every invisible organizational chart. An anonymous former colleague: “Don’t kid yourself, Polaroid is a one-man company.”

When faced with scientific illiteracy or lack of imagination, Land resorted to a restrained bit of showbiz. As it turned out, he was strikingly good at explaining his work to people, and powerfully persuasive.

Ed Land was one of Jobs’ childhood heroes. Jobs met with him later and connected when when Land said his products have always existed, they were just invisible: waiting to be discovered. Apple exemplified Land’s motto “Don’t do anything that someone else can do.

Polaroid’s downfall started long before the digital apocalypse with their sidelining of Land in the ’80s. His final mistake was giving little thought to his own succession and the future of the company in the new generation. When they all but kicked Land out, Jobs met with and scolded management, saying Polaroid would turn into “a vanilla corporation”.

And it did. Jobs would take this lesson to heart many years later with his own succession plan.

Snapshot

Evan Spiegel is also heavily influenced by Land and Polaroid. But alas, Snap is not a camera company—they’re a communication company. And I think they’d do better in the future remembering that.

Inspiration, not imitation.

snap.jpg
Polaroid Variable Day Glasses; Snap Glasses.

I’ll finish with a Land quote from 1970: “We are still a long way from the… camera that would be, oh, like the telephone: something that you use all day long … a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses.”

 


* “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” by Christopher Bonanos (2012).
Land’s Polaroid: A company and the man who invented it” by Peter Wensberg (1987)

Steve Jobs on learning to code

From Robert X. Cringley’s “Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview”:

When we were designing our blue box, we wrote a lot of custom programs to help us design it, you know, and to do a lot of the dog work for us in terms of calculating master frequencies with subdivisors to get other frequencies and things like that. We used the computer quite a bit to calculate, you know, to calculate how much error we would get in the frequencies and how much could be tolerated.

So we used them in our work, but much more importantly, it had nothing to do with using them for anything practical. It had to do with using them to be a mirror of your thought process; to actually learn how to think.

I think the greatest value of learning how to—I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer—should learn a computer language, because it teaches you how to think. It’s like going to law school. I don’t think anybody should be a lawyer, but I think going to law school would actually be useful, because it teaches you how to think in a certain way, in the same way that computer programming teaches you in a slightly different way how to think. And so I view computer science as a liberal art.

Steve Jobs on learning to run a company

From Robert X. Cringley’s “Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview”:

You know, throughout the years in business I found something, which was I’d always ask why you do things. And the answers you invariably get are “Oh, that’s just the way it’s done.” Nobody knows why they do what they do. Nobody thinks about things very deeply in business. That’s what I found. I’ll give you an example. When we were building our Apple I’s in the garage we knew exactly what they cost.

When we got into a factory in the Apple II days, the accounting had this notion of a “standard cost”—where you’d kind of set a standard cost and at the end of a quarter you’d adjust it with a “variance.” And I kept asking, “Well, why do we do this?” And the answer was, “Well, that’s just the way it’s done.” And after about six months of digging into this, what I realized was, the reason you do it is because you don’t really have good enough controls to know how much it costs, so you guess. And then you fix your guess at the end of the quarter.

And the reason you don’t know how much it costs is because your information systems aren’t good enough. But nobody said it that way. And so later on when we designed this automated factory for Macintosh, we were able to get rid of a lot of these antiquated concepts and know exactly what something cost to the second.

So in business, a lot of things are—I call it “folklore.” They’re done because they were done yesterday and the day before. And so what that means is if you’re willing to sort of ask a lot of questions and think about things and work really hard, you can learn business pretty fast. It’s not the hardest thing in the world.

Quotes On Steve Jobs

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After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography and the last few months worth of articles on Steve Jobs, I put together a collection of my favorite quotes about and related to him:

At the company he founded after being ousted from Apple, Jobs was able to indulge all of his instincts, both good and bad. He was unbound. The result was a series of spectacular products that were dazzling market flops. This was the true learning experience. What prepared him for the great success he would have in Act III was not his ouster from his Act I at Apple but his brilliant failures in Act II. — Isaacson (page 219)

It was yet another example of Jobs consciously positioning himself at the intersection of the arts and technology. In all of his products, technology would be married to great design, elegance, human touches, and even romance. — Isaacson (page 41)

Jobs’s interest in Eastern spirituality, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and the search for enlightenment was not merely the passing phase of a nineteen-year-old. Throughout his life he would seek to follow many of the basic precepts of Eastern religions, such as the emphasis on experiential prajñā, wisdom or cognitive understanding that is intuitively experienced through concentration of the mind. — Isaacson (page 48)

[Jobs’s] reality distortion field was a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand.  — Andy Hertzfeld 

Continue reading “Quotes On Steve Jobs”