Big Data, Bigger Ideas

face pic human face

Every animate and inanimate object on earth will soon be generating data, including our homes, our cars, and yes, even our bodies”— Anthony D. Williams on the back of a big book entitled The Human Face of Big Data

From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated give exabytes of data. Now, we produce five exabytes every two days.” — Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google

The average person today processes more data in a single day than a person in the 1500s did in an entire lifetime.

Big Data is much more than big data. It’s also the ability to extract meaning: to sort through masses of numbers and find the hidden pattern, the unexpected correlation, th surprising connection. That ability is growing at astonishing speed, it won’t be long before Amazon’s ability to dazzle customers by suggesting just the right book will seem as quaint as our ancestors’s amazement at horseless carriages.– Dan Gardner, from the book’s introduction

human face big dataClearly, big data is a massive idea. Let’s see if we can’t break it down, if not by components, then, at least, by illustrations of classes and contexts.

The connection between data collection and pattern recognition is not new. In fact, we know the earliest example, which still exists, in book form, in a small, private Library of Human Imagination in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The book is called Bills of Mortality, and it records the weekly causes of death for London in 1664. This data was used to study the geographic (block-by-block) growth of the plague, and to take measures to prevent its future growth.

Two hundred gigabytes per day may not seem like much data, not in the days when you can buy a terabyte drive from Staples for a hundred bucks or so, but collect that much data day and day out, for a few years, and the warehouse becomes a busy place. That’s what MIT Media Lab’s Seb Roy did to learn how his newborn son learned language. The work was done at home with eleven cameras and fourteen microphones recording the child’s every move, every sound. The recording part of the project is over–their son is now seven years old–but analysis of “unexpected connections between the routines of everyday life and how one child learned his first words” continues as a research project.

On the other end of the age scale, there’s Magic Carpet, now in prototype. The carpet contains sensors and accelerometers. When installed in the home of, say, a senior, the carpet observes, records, and learns the person’s typical routine, which it uses as a baseline for further analysis. Then, “the system checks constantly for sudden (or gradual) abnormalities. If Mom is moving more slowly than usual, or it’s 11 a.m., And her bedroom door still hasn’t opened, the system sends an alert to a family member or physician.”

Often, big data intersects with some sort of mapping project. Camden, New Jersey’s Doctor Jeffrey Brenner “built a map linking hospital claims to patient addresses. He analyzed patterns of data, and the result took him by complete surprise: just one percent of patients, about 1,000 people, accounted for 30 percent of hospital bills because these patients were showing up in the hospital time after time…a microcosm for what’s going on in the whole country (in) emergency room visits and hospital admissions…” Subsequently, he established the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers to help address this “costly dysfunction.” He collected the data, analyzed it, then brought out meaningful change at a local level.

One of the many superb photographs depicting the intersection between human life and technology use. The book was put together by Rick Smolan, an extraordinary photographer, curator and compiler whose past work includes A Day in the The Life of America and other books in that series.

One of the many superb photographs depicting the intersection between human life and technology use. The book was put together by Rick Smolan, an extraordinary photographer, curator and compiler whose past work includes A Day in the The Life of America and other books in that series.

Yes, there’s a very scary dark side. Bad people could turn off 60,000 pacemakers via their Internet connections. A real time, technology enabled 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai killed 172 people and injured 300 more thanks to Blackberries, night vision goggles, satellite phones and other devices.

If you control the code, you control the world. There has not been an operating system or a technology that has not been hacked.

Fortunately, the good guys have tools on their side, too. The $40 million Domain Awareness System in Manhattan includes “an array of 3,000 cameras known as ‘The Ring of Steel” that monitor lower and midtown Manhattan as well as license plate readers, radiation detectors, relevant 911 calls, arrest records, related crimes, and vast files on characteristics such as tattoos, body marks, teeth, and even limps. They can also track a suspicious vehicle through time to the many locations where it has been over previous days and weeks.”

Google’s self-driving car is safer than a human-controlled vehicle because the digital car can access and process far more information more quickly than today’s humans.

By 2020, China will complete Compass/Beidou-2. This advanced navigation system will outperform the current (and decades old) GPS system. Greater precision will be used for public safety (emergency response, for example), commercial use (fishing, automotive), and, inevitably, for far more productive war.

Data can mean the difference between life death when the weather turns ugly. Thousands of lives are saved each year by weather earnings in wealthier countries. Yet thousands of lives are lost in poor ones when monsoons, tornadoes and other storms strike with little public warning, an intensifying threat as the planet warms,,,

If you’ve ever wondered what Amazon’s true business is, or why it uses the name of a gigantic river, the answer is big data. Ultimately, Amazon intends to become a public utility for computing services. Take a careful look at Amazon Prime and you will see a prototype. The streaming side of PBS and Netflix are among the enterprises enabled by Amazon’s big data operations.

For FedEx, “the information about the package is as important as the package itself.”

human face big data movementsWhether its eliminating malaria or making art, text messaging for blood donors or tracking asteroids, the future will be defined by the collection, analysis and use of big data. It will shape our individual knowledge about our own bodies, our children’s growth and our parents’ health, our collective tendencies for public good, safety, and bad behavior. It will be embedded in robots and intelligent systems that may, soon, control aspects of life that we once considered wholly human endeavors. It is a change of epic proportions and yet, most of us are unaware of its importance.

The book, The Human Face of Big Data, along with its related website and app, provide a useful gateway into this brave new world.

CES 2013: What Mattered and Why

Just after Christmas, the Consumer Electronics Show convenes in Las Vegas to showcase all that’s new for the coming year. Most of it is upgrades, retreads, and modest improvements over the past year’s stuff. Some of it suggests a new shape for the industry, and for the ways that we work, play, and communicate. Here’s a brief rundown on what might matter most:

  • The disk drive maker Seagate will soon offer a “local cloud” storage device that you can set up in your home or office. Local storage, easily reached via local wi-fi. IT professionals will recognize this as a NAS, short for Network Attached Storage. At about $250 for 4TB, the lesser configurations don’t save enough money to be worth your time.
  • Expanded uses for phones and tablets. One shining example is the new MOCET iPad Communicator. Phones and tablets are extremely versatile. Adding capabilities beyond, say, a clock radio or external speakers, will become increasingly commonplace. Remember: you’re carrying a fairly powerful computer. Why not put it to use?


    To go to the site, click on the picture.

  • OLED is a video technology that allows for very thin screens–and flexible ones. The price of manufacture is dropping, so we’ll begin to see OLED screens enter the race between plasma and LED screens. Eventually, this organic (!) technology will win out, and become commonplace. (The “O” in OLED stands for “organic.)
  • Previously, I wrote about the new 4K screens. They’re beginning to be shown as demos.
  • Touch screens and gestures will begin to replace keyboards and remote controls. As the technology allows for greater precision, older ways of interacting with computers (and tablets) and with videogames and TV sets will shift our conception of an interface into the modern age.
  • Smart phones seem to be getting larger–more screen real estate is better for mail, web, games, and movies. Tablets seems to be getting smaller (the line between a small tablet and a big phone is becoming difficult to discern). Tablets are also becoming larger–imagine what you could do with a 20-inch portable tablet! Here, we’re starting to blur the distinction between a computer monitor, a TV set and a tablet. It’s tough to forecast where these trends are heading.
  • Samsung has become the Sony of the 2010s–an exciting company with innovation in every direction. The quality is there, too. But there are still lessons to be learned about user interfaces and design.
  • Very small storage devices are continuing to expand their storage dimensions. Kingston, for example, showed off a 1TB flash drive–larger than the popular thumb drives, but still quite portable.
  • From DPReview's coverage, the latest Fujifilm digital camera. Click on the image to see their story.

    From DPReview’s coverage, the latest Fujifilm digital camera. Click on the image to see their story.

    It’s now a regular routine: cool new cameras introduced at CES. For a solid rundown, visit DPReview. I think my favorite stuff is the expansion of Fuji small-sensor line. These cameras look like the real think, shoot terrific images, and tend to be somewhat more intuitive in their interfaces. (More on these soon.)

  • Automotive electronics has always been a key aspect of CES. Sure, car stereos and car security systems remain center stage. Now that cars plug into wall sockets, the vehicles themselves are becoming digital devices. This time around, lots of cars as harbingers. Next time, I’ll bet we start seeing hybrid devices that confuse the definitions of bicycles, motorcycles, golf carts, and other short-range transportation devices.
  • Oculus Verge

    To read The Verge’s story about the Oculus Rift, click on the image.

  • Your smartphone and/or your tablet will become a monitoring control center and remote control. You know how we’re beginning to program a DVR from afar? Or read date/time stamps on the foods in the fridge? It won’t be long before we all have a remote dashboard to tell us about the fuel in the car, the meds in the bathroom, when the last time the dog was walked, body fat, etc. add some robotic controls and digital life becomes even more interesting.
  • I’ve wondered why immersive video game displays have taken so long to gain traction in the marketplace. Now, it looks like the (Kickstarter-funded) Oculus Rift will change the way gamers see and experience the experience of game play. There’s good multimedia coverage in The Verge.

The Fourth Good Idea (The One That Works!)

Good idea #1 – On every iPad, Apple includes a slot for an SD card. That way, I can copy a file from my computer, insert it into the player without any fuss, and edit a document or watch a movie.

Didn’t happen.

Good idea #2 – Recognizing the error of its ways, Apple introduces a $30 accessory called the Camera Connection Kit. It includes two small white blocks, one of which allows the insertion of an SD card into an iPad. But only for transferring pictures. Forget about editing a Pages or Numbers file, or watching a movie.

Good idea #3 – Seagate introduces GoFlex, a lightweight, portable disk drive that connects, wirelessly, to any iPad. The secret is a wireless network created by the device; that’s how the connection to the iPad is made. The capacity is 500GB, a very healthy amount of space for all sorts of files. Unfortunately, Seagate’s interface technology proves difficult to use, and, at least for me, it seems to work less often than other devices. (Seagate has provided help, not once but several times. New Year’s Resolution: Since I love this idea, I will try again and get it right.) It costs less than $200.

AirstashGood idea #4 – Maxell introduces AirStash. It’s a small wireless network, and it worked the first time. There are three parts, well-integrated. The first is an app, clean and simple, just a list of files organized by file type (movies, etc.) The second in an SD card (up to 32GB). You insert the SD card into your computer, load it up with files, and plug it into the third part. That’s a device roughly the size of a large cigarette lighter. On one end: an SD card slot. On the other, well, nothing you need to make the connection (more on that in a moment). You find the AirStash network in the list of available wireless networks, make the connection, return to the app, and just watch the movie (or whatever it is you want to do). From time to time, you need to recharge the AirStash battery–that’s the third part, a USB plug that you insert into any computer or USB/AC adapter for the recharge.

My test device was loaded with several good films: I watched The King’s Speech and Inception, and both played flawlessly.

Sorry, but I can’t resist:

Good idea #5: AirStash is updated so that it can be used without shutting down the WiFi network that you usually use. Right now, that’s a flaw. I hope it will be fixed.

So, that’s the story. AirStash is a product that really works. And it’s simple enough that I was able to write an article about half as long as usual, simply because, well, this really is a simple product to use, and to explain. Whoever made this happen, good work! (And thank you for solving the problem that Apple never should have created in the first place!)

AirStash Phone

Here’s a look at the AirStash app for the iPhone. Simple, straightforward and intuitive.

Welcome to Silicon Alley (Hollywood 3.0)

Aerial_Hollywood_SignThe next big thing has already begun… on Silicon Beach. If the term is unfamiliar, think in terms of a third generation’s reinvention of Hollywood (with a far larger SoCal geographic area)–first came movies, then TV, now Internet. This fast-growing community makes use of the (hungry) local creative community, welcomes investment from 20th century moguls, and offers instruction and consulting to old school Hollywood studios.

Read all about in this article, published in Variety just before Thanksgiving.

Michael Freeman’s Eye, Vision and Mind

Over time, I’ve bought, or browsed, dozens of books about photography. Most of these books are either too basic, too technical, or remarkably unfocused on the impact of picture making. Several books by Michael Freeman set a high standard for smart books with a strong aesthetic and storytelling sense, and yet, they are written at a level that provides solid, practical advice for even the most casual photographer. I’ve become a big fan of these books, and I would recommend one, two or all three volumes as holiday gifts for anyone with even a passing interest in digital photography, and, I would strengthen that recommendation if the gifts are intended for someone who is serious about photography.

Photographers MindOf the three, I think I like The Photographer’s Mind best. The opening chapter is not about lenses or exposure. Instead, the book opens with a chapter entitled, “Intent.”

If you want people to pay attention to your photography and enjoy it, you have to give them a reason to look at it for longer than a glance… [and this is] more about why than how.

And so begins a well-illustrated consideration of beauty, cliche, irony, the mundane, revelation, and other core concepts that go far beyond the snapshot. The second chapter, “Style,” explores harmonics and balance, relationships between visual style and musical style, opposition, minimalism, engineered disorder… you get the idea. This is a smart, thinking person’s approach to photography, aspirational but practical, nicely written but the focus is on the (many) sample images. And the pictures really are terrific–Freeman’s intelligent, emotional approach to teaching is well-represented by his work.

Photographer's EyeAll three books are personal favorites, but the second book I would buy is (rhymingly) The Photographer’s Eye, a book about design. Freeman considers the relative merits and artistic potential of various frame formats, horizons, frames within frames, and other tools/tricks of the trade. My favorite chapter is the second one, in which musical and aesthetic concepts offered in opposing pairs: soft/hard, thick/thin, diagonal/circular, much/little, sweet/sour, and more. Consider figure and ground, rhythm, single vs. multiple points, dynamic tension. I know that these ideas are dancing in my head when I’m out shooting for the day, but they’ve always been disorganized, and never quite coherent. With Freeman as a teacher, my perspective changes. I study his images, read his words, and understand the tool in my hands differently. And I want to spend hours and hours practicing.

Photographer's VisionI think of the third volume, The Photographer’s Vision, as the most advanced of the three. This is the one that considers purpose and greatness, the volume that places Lee Friedlander, Robert Capa and Brassaï in contexts where their work, or, at least, their unique creative approaches, are presented so that a contemporary amateur can both appreciate and perhaps emulate the work of legendary professionals.

Gosh, these books are good.

And then, I take a deep breath. I search for Michael Freeman online, and it turns out, he is a cottage industry. So many great ideas, so much valuable instruction, so little time.

Buy these books for a family member or a friend. They’ll be counted among this year’s favorites, I promise.

It’s official: everything has changed.

I just reviewed an astonishing PowerPoint from Mary Meeker at Kleiner Perkins. It contains a thorough explanation of our rapidly changing, and changed, world. From mobile phones and to the Rose Bowl, newspapers to cash registers, borrowing and lending money to door locks, hiring to education, our contemporary wave of technology  has transformed the world.

The deck is 88 pages long, and worth all of the time you will spend thinking about it today, this week, this year.

I will add to this post tonight. Right now, it’s off to work, transforming an old TV station into something entirely new. (Thanks, Mary, for the encouragement. And for the pile of useful, persuasive data.)

Bird’s Eye View of the Storm

For as long as our east coast power holds out, I plan to keep a weather eye on the storm by visiting NASA’s phenomenal multimedia site. You’re looking at a view of the storm from the International Space Station.

Here’s an equally fascinating video, also from the Space Station. Look below, and you’ll notice some space station hardware on the upper left.

For me, all of this started when I discovered Samir’s Twitter feed and this stunning image:

The clarity of these images, and the fact that they exist at all, seems like a miracle.

Be safe, one and all.


PS – Back here on earth, here’s a visual diary.

New Cameras – The Best of Photokina

Every two years, Cologne, Germany hosts the world’s greatest photography trade show. This is the year, and these are my notes on the most interesting of cameras that are small, lightweight, and extremely capable. Over time, I will write about some of these products in more detail. Most are announced but not available in stores.

One of the coolest new cameras: Sony’s Cybershot DSC-RX1. The sensor is “full frame”–that is, the size of a 35mm film negative (about an inch high). At just under $3,000, it’s beyond the budget barrier for most of us. But don’t lose hope: 2012’s state-0f-the-art may well be 2014’s under-$1,000 camera. We’re seeing more and more full frame sensors, and prices are coming down. So why is this camera worth so much money?  Lenses are not interchangeable: your investment buys a single 35mm lens (f/2) attached to a 24 megapixel camera. It’s a small camera with superior build quality, and, if it performs as promised, quite good in low light situations. For more, see Digital Photography Review’s preview.

For several years, Sony has been producing cameras in the NEX range: small APS-C sensors in thin, sleek bodies with outsized lenses. The NEX-6 is priced at $999, offers 16 megapixels, and offers some features unavailable in Sony’s higher priced NEX-7.

Two years ago, at Photokina 2010, Fujifilm introduced a state-of-the-art, retro-in-look-and-feel camera fixed lens camera called the X100. The lens was a wide angle, the color rendition was extraordinary, and it offered a built-in hybrid viewfinder (easy switching between optical and electronic viewfinder). A year or so later, Fujifilm built on the franchise with an interchangeable lens system for serious amateurs and professionals, the XPro1. Now comes the XE-1, similar to the XPro1 but smaller, lighter, and an electronic (but not optical) viewfinder. It’s a 16 megapixel camera that costs about $1,400.

The Fujifilm XF1 in brown. Also available in black or red.

Just about everyone will want the new, simple, high quality Fuji XF1 with its 4x zoom and 12 megapixels. Why? It’s small, fast, and looks great. Small: 4.2 inches wide, 1.2 inches thick, 8 ounces. Fast: largest aperture is f/1.8, so you can shoot in reasonably low light without a flash. Looks great: yes, it’s a bit of a fashion accessory (see the website), but it’s also a straightforward camera for a serious photographer. It’s a 12 megapixel model, and it costs about $500.

For those with greater ambition, some tolerance for a slightly heavier camera, and more available cash, Fujifilm’s X-E1 is an interchangeable lens camera with a lower price than Fujifilm’s much-coveted X-Pro1. This is, arguably, mirror-less digital photography at its 2012 peak. The X-Pro1 includes an optical/digital hybrid viewfinder; the XE-1 offers only the electronic version.

The new Leica M-E digital camera.

Leica’s new M-E provides a Leica-universe starter camera priced at 3,900 Euros (about $5,000). It’s a full frame 16 megapixel camera. Even more pricey is Leica’s new full frame digital M camera with 24 MP and an available external viewfinder. For more about Leica’s new M camera, and their current digital camera philosophy, read this interview with Leica product manager Jesko von Oeynhausen.

Over at Canon, I found two new, intriguing models. The EOS-M is sleek and small MORE. The latest in an impressive line of self-contained (no interchangeable lenses) models is the G15, now with a faster F1.8-2.8 les. It’s less bulky than the current G12, but dispenses with the handy pull out / pull up / pull down “articulated” rear screen.

Nikon has added orange colored cameras to its Nikon 1 line.

Panasonic’s GH3 was recently announced.

At Panasonic, the GH3 is the big news–a full-featured DSLR style camera, and although its mirror-less design suggests smaller size, it’s about the size of an entry-level DSLR. The GH3 is a more versatile multimedia performer than most cameras in its class. It shoots in several video formats, MP4, MOV, AVCHD or AVCHD Progressive. WiFi connectivity allows the camera to be operated from a computer. No specific pricing yet, but the camera will probably cost between $1,500 and $2,000.

The OM-D was released by Olympus earlier this year.

Olympus is again getting things right. For serious photographers, there’s the new-ish OM-D and for smart amateurs. This smallish camera offers an ideal combination of reasonable price, very good color rendition, a built-in viewfinder, lessons learned from several excellent PEN model cameras, and the promise of a new line of professional cameras that can be carried anywhere without worry about weight or size. What’s more, the video quality is quite good, and the camera handles beautifully. This is camera that you ought to consider against just about any of the others in this article. And if the OM-D is more camera than you need, Olympus offers several good options in the PEN line with interchangeable lenses and a nice range of accessories. New at Photokina 2012, and soon to be in stores, there’s a revised version of two lower priced PEN models (which use the same lenses as the more sophisticated OM-D): PEN Mini (E-PM2) and PEN Lite (E-PL5).

Samsung has been making serious inroads. The NX210 replaces the NX200, offering both style and ergonomic improvements and 20 megapixel resolution, and some useful new features, including wifi connectivity for image transfers to your computer. Samsung is a relatively new name in the photo industry, so it’s easy to overlook the huge advances these guys have made in a systems approach to photography–there are lots of lenses and accessories available for the growing NX line, fashionable cameras in white, very good ergonomics, interesting features, lots more.

The new Hasselblad Lunar.

Hasselblad ‘s new Lunar is a luxury camera that resembles one of Sony’s NEX models, and, in fact, uses the same A-mount lenses that you’d use on the NEX cameras. This is a very high-tech 24 megapixel camera with a very fast processor and a blingy exterior (there are a variety of handgrips made from exotic woods, etc.). It costs 5,000 euros (about $6,500)–a price that may be difficult to justify in the era of cameras that remain state-of-the-art for just a year or two. For more about Hasselblad’s approach, see this article in the British Journal of Photography.

Well, that’s quick overview. If you’re looking for a more extensive roundup, you can visit the largest booths (stands, in Europe), virtually, by exploring the Digital Photography Review section on Photokina 2012.

After many productive (35mm film) years with a Canon A-1, I decided, just before the digital deluge, to invest a really good film camera. The year was 2000. I kept the Leica catalog, and found my written notes inside the back cover. I was considering the Leica M6–one of the finest 35mm cameras every made. The cost of the body was about $2,000. Each of the three lenses cost $1,000-2,000. Total package price: about $7,000. (I ended up spending a lot less money for a wonderful used Hasselblad 501CM with two lenses). At the time, I had the feeling that my investment would stand the test of time. A decade later, film photography is retro fun, but digital rules the day. Now, I wonder whether a $2,ooo camera will stand the test of time. And I’m less secure now than I was in 2000. And I still spend far too much time thinking about cameras, and far too little time actually taking pictures.

See also:

Next-Generation Camcorder

Just when you thought you’d need only your cell phone to shoot video, Sony introduces two new ideas that may change the game a bit: a gyro-stablized lens and a built-in projector. Have a look at the new, remarkably small Sony HXR-NX30, a $2,000 camcorder just arrived from the future.

Weighing about two pounds and stretching to a foot with battery attached, this small HD camcorder solves a constant problem for journalists and other hand-held videographers: the gyro system is, essentially, a built-in Steadycam-like feature. Without the extended balance mechanisms. Small enough to tuck into a medium-sized shoulder bag.

The built-in project is fairly modest, more useful for screening the days’ work on a hotel wall than for a public screening. Still, the projected images can be as large as about three feet (diagonally), and if they aren’t beautiful HD quality, they are far, far better than the images you’d be watching on the built-in 3-inch LCD screen.

Although the results are suitable for professional purposes, this is, in essence, a prosumer camcorder. It’s nice to see nearly 100GB of built-in memory (which goes quickly when shooting in HD), and it uses SD cards. There are XLR connectors for professional microphones, and a decent amount of control for just about every application. And there are a gaggle of other useful features, all common in this price category.

The news here is the built-in stabilization. Many will purchase this camera for that feature alone. And, hopefully, we’ll see lots of cameras with a similar feature–it should become standard in two or three years.

The Google of Its Day

No, it’s not easy to detect the precise moment when the trouble began, when the world began to change, when everything that worked for a century suddenly stopped working. There are theories, and books written, and somehow, the old ways seem distant, and inconceivable in their naiveté. And there are new ideas, new companies, new ways of thinking and connecting that don’t much resemble the old. But one thing is clear: everything else may change, but in my world, in your job, in our town, everything is going to be just fine if we just cut some costs, say the magic words “social networking” three times daily, and reinforce one another’s thinking about the value of maintaining the status quo.

I keep thinking about Kodak. George Eastman was 24 years old when he (and other hobbyists) figured they could build an industry by making photography easier. From 1878 until 1883, he opened a factory, and by 1888, he was selling shares. He struggles to find a market in the US, finds one in Europe, brings it all back home, and by 1900, Kodak is the hot start-up company. It sells cameras for $1 and rolls of film for 15 cents. By 1907, Kodak employs 5,000 people (about the number it employs today). By 1914, Kodak builds a skyscraper. By 1924, George Eastman gives half of his $75 million (in today’s dollars, $2 billion) fortune to charitable causes–including $12 million in start-up funds for what becomes MIT. In 1932, at age 77, Eastman kills himself (the suicide note read: “Why wait?”). Still, Kodak kept on growing: in 1935, Kodak introduced Kodachrome color slide film, in and jumping ahead to 1962, Kodak sales exceeded $1 billion, and the company was heavily invested in future technologies, a strategy employed well into the 2000s, when the company was an early leader in digital photography at all levels, from medical imaging to consumer cameras.

Kodak was the Google of its day. — The Economist (see history or official Kodak history)

Today, Kodak is almost non-existent. Nearly gone. After closing its factories, leaving the camera business and nowadays, selling off its patents, a century’s success is fading like the (Polaroid) snapshot in Back to the Future 2.

Why did Kodak fail? Some theories:

Kodak did not fail because it missed the digital age. It actually invented the first digital camera in 1975. However, instead of marketing the new technology, the company held back for fear of hurting its lucrative film business, even after digital products were reshaping the market. — Forbes.

And then there are companies like Kodak — which saw the future and simply couldn’t figure out what to do. Kodak’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing on January 19 culminates the company’s 30-year slide from innovation giant to aging behemoth crippled by its own legacy. — Knowledge@Wharton

The company might have been able to innovate more quickly on the digital front if it had set up a separate lab in Silicon Valley, then allowed it to grow independently and tap into the area’s tech culture and expertise.” — Knowledge@Wharton

And what should Kodak have done?

— Enter the cell phone business? It tried this a bit. Didn’t work.

— Recognize that it was really in the memory business and diversify into storage? Nice try.

— Increase its R&D? Kodak did that, spending most of the money on improving film technology.

— Diversify into healthcare? It did that too. Didn’t work.

— Spin off its chemical business? It did that, generating some cash. But small potatoes.

— Integrate backwards into semiconductors? Way out of its competency.

In the end, Kodak (now on the brink of bankruptcy) was a well run company that failed. It was an early technology company, and it never lost its technology roots. It then became a marketing behemoth and a superb consumer company. It then morphed into a financially run enterprise and it did that well–until it failed. — Information Week

And what does this mean for the rest of us?

That’s a question I want to explore in future blog articles. Clearly, the digital revolution in motion, gaining considerable momentum as the spookiness of the bubble fades from memory. I would imagine that schools and education will be the next frontier, the next “it can’t happen here” that will be utterly transformed, but there are significant political and economic class issues driving the status quo. I wonder whether the top ranks of the Fortune 500 will continue to be dominated by companies associated with cars and fuel in thirty years (remember: thirty years ago, Kodak was still hot stuff). We’re been seeing tremendous technology-driven changes in health care, and now, with new rules and an increasingly stable economy, and the dreadful statistics about health care needs of aging baby boomers, the opportunities in this area seem rich, particularly in the digital space (tele-medicine,  patient education, digital tracking of patience care, etc.)

%d bloggers like this: