Q&A: How Polaroid Paved the Way for Apple

The author of "Instant: The Story of Polaroid" reveals the many parallels with Apple
Portrait of American scientist, inventor, and businessman Edwin Land (1909 - 1991), co-founder of Polaroid, demonstrating the '60-second film,' in 1963. Photograph by Fritz Goro/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Once upon a time there was a college dropout with big ideas about products that would reshape human behavior. From that unyielding vision and the force of his personality, he took a garage startup to the heights of industry, creating products that defined new markets and became part of the vernacular. When a giant competitor, who was also a supplier, came up with a knockoff of his most popular product, he was incensed. So his company went to court and won a record-breaking patent settlement.

This is a sketch of the life of Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid. You might also recognize it as the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The two men—and the two companies—shared an uncanny number of characteristics, from a penchant for dramatic product presentations and press adulation to an almost messianic ambition and a yen for simplicity.

In his new book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, Chris Bonanos offers an elegant version of Land’s story. (Disclosure: Bonanos was a colleague of mine for several years at New York magazine. He probably has a Polaroid of me somewhere.) Instant follows Land from his first patent in 1929 and the founding of the company that would become Polaroid, to the introduction of his billion-dollar baby, the SX-70, in 1972 and the decline and fall of Polaroid. Along the way there was an almost 15-year patent battle with Kodak. In one scene, the retired Land meets Jobs in Cambridge, Mass., and the two discuss their experience of imagining “a perfect new product, whole, already manufactured sitting before him,” and then spending years bringing it into the world.

Bonanos spoke with me about the parallels between Land and Jobs and a new gadget that joins two of their greatest inventions.

How big was the shadow of Steve Jobs as you were working on this, especially since there was so much attention on Jobs around the time of his death a year ago?

It did cross my mind many times. Both [Jobs and Land] really, really believed in the product as opposed to the market segment or the placement. Land once said, “Marketing is what you do if you’re product is no good.” He understood that if the product is fantastic, and you demonstrate it to people, you show it honestly, then the selling should handle itself. And Jobs believed in the same thing. His gripe about Microsoft, for example, was always that they were really good at achieving market dominance but that the actual products were annoying to use and ugly. They both really fetishized product design. When the SX-70 came along in 1972, Land obsessed over the details of it. He so wanted it to be a perfect little object that falls into the hand comfortably. He used to refer to it as “my beautiful camera.” Everything down to the selection of the leather on the outside mattered to him.

And he and Jobs both wanted to bury the complexity inside the product.

They both believed that simple is a lot harder than complicated. Land from the very beginning talked about a system of photography that inserted no impediments between the photographer and the final product, the picture. Point. Shoot. See. And he largely achieved it. The later-generation Polaroid cameras have autofocus systems. They do all the processing for you. You point. You press that button. And 90 seconds later you have a picture in color.

Land and Jobs both did dramatic product presentations.

Land figured out something early, and Jobs took his cues very directly from it: that a shareholders meeting doesn’t have to be a guy at a lectern reading a spreadsheet, that you could sort of turn it into a show. When he was running these shareholders meetings in the 1960s and ’70s, he would have music onstage. He would have good lighting and dramatic presentation.

In 1973, when SX-70 was coming along, he ordered 10,000 red and yellow tulips so that they would fill the room. There were bowls of them on every surface so that people could take pictures of flowers. He would get up onstage, and he would bring you into his world with these demonstrations. And by the time he was done, you had object lust for this thing. And, needless to say, Steve Jobs was watching. It looked uncannily like an iPod or iPad product introduction.

And then they had these huge crowds for new products.

Yeah, thousands and thousands of people showed up. If they were doing it now they’d be live-blogging it for sure.

It seems like Polaroid faced a consumer attitude I now associate with Apple. It was thank you for this product that does things I didn’t know were possible, but it has this one glitch. I have to wait a whole minute, or it doesn’t work in dim light. It’s awful.

Here’s a thing that changed my life. Now fix it. Now make it better. SX-70, when it was introduced, was a giant hit, but they couldn’t keep up with demand. And they also had production problems. The film didn’t always work right. They had battery problems. They had camera problems. There was an estimate that 300,000 cameras of the first something like a million sold came back for repairs. He was a little ahead of the technology curve, and therefore the product was a little bit harder to make than they could handle, than anyone could handle at that time.

And Polaroid had a huge patent battle of its own, much like Apple vs. Samsung.

That’s right. It was in 1976. Starting in the late ’60s, [Eastman] Kodak figured out that a company with which it had always worked in harmony was perhaps a major competitor. And Kodak started its own instant photography research project. They had teams of lawyers read everything Polaroid had patented. And they spent years coming up with systems that they thought worked around the Polaroid patents. And Land took one look at it all, and a week later Polaroid filed suit against Kodak for patent infringement. It was a case that took 14 and a half years in court, and Polaroid won. The settlement was $925 million in 1990. And Kodak was also enjoined in the mid ’80s. They had to get out of the instant camera business altogether. And by the way, $925 million was the biggest settlement ever paid out until last month. Apple vs. Samsung beat it.

Jobs and Land both took the theft very personally.

It’s absolutely true. Land pushed for an injunction against Kodak in part because he was quietly outraged. He once said, “I expected better from Eastman.” He knew they were going to compete. He thought they were going to dazzle him and that they’d have some catching up of their own to do. Instead, Kodak came along with this thing. It was a bigger, dumpier camera. And it pushed a picture out through rollers, same as an SX-70 did, and it had a white tab at the bottom of the frame and basically looked like a Polaroid picture. He was annoyed that they’d just ripped him off. That’s how he saw it. And Jobs. You’ve seen those quotes where he talked about Android. He’s appalled. He was pissed at Google for the same thing. They did what he did, and they made it uglier.

Where should we stop and note the differences between the two?

The big difference, and Land in fact noticed this himself, is that Jobs was not a scientist. He was an inventor, maybe, and an extraordinary marketer. And a great, great industrial designer, along with [Apple designer] Jony Ive, and a perfectionist and extraordinary executive, and many, many other things that made him good at his job. But he was only an OK engineer. And he hadn’t done engineering in many years when he died. Land was a scientist. He was never happier than when he was in the lab at the bench doing something. I went to the patent disclosures when they were really just coming along toward inventing instant film. Roughly every other day, and then eventually every day, there’s a memo explaining some idea. And I cannot tell you how many of them say “Mr. Land came to my office today with an idea for an improved process for XYZ.” It practically all comes out of his head.

We’re not in a position to tell Apple how to do business, but do you see lessons for Apple in Polaroid after Land was gone?

There are certainly pitfalls that await them, but I am actually kind of optimistic about Apple, partly because the innovations were not necessarily springing from Steve Jobs’s head as much as they were coming from Land’s head. Everybody says the next big push for them is into television sets. Apple excels in cleaning up a system everybody has already that’s no good. There were lots of MP3 players before the iPod, but they were ugly and clumsy and you couldn’t navigate all your stuff. And then suddenly this perfect little object appears with a plain little wheel on the front and a screen. And it just does what it’s supposed to do, and everybody went, “Ah, finally.”

I bet you have four TV remotes on your coffee table. And when you have to hook up a movie from the DVD player, if you are running it through the stereo, you have to change four buttons. And if it’s not your house, you don’t know how to turn the television on. If Apple fixes that, their next 10 years are set, or maybe five. And apparently that’s what they are working on. So I sense that there is more to come from Apple. I hope there is, because they do things right.

Finally, what do you think of the Impossible Project [the Austrian startup that salvaged a Polaroid film plant and is producing the closest thing going to the original film]? Do you think it can endure?

I do, actually. I wondered at the beginning because their first product was far from being Polaroid film, but the new film they introduced a couple weeks ago looks like Polaroid 600 film. It’s easy to shoot, and it does what it’s supposed to do. It’s kind of remarkable. They have such an enthusiastic customer base, people who have the bug so bad. Last year their film was still experimental and a little touchy, and not the easiest to use. And they sold a million packs of it. I have to assume they are going to do better this year. They had a Kickstarter campaign a few weeks ago for what’s called a day lab. It’s a product to print your iPhone photos onto instant film. And they raised $250,000 in 30 hours [now up to $526,084]. So people want this stuff.

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