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Polaroid: Still Raging Against the Dying of the Light


By Brendan I. Koerner

Bidding adios to longtime attachments is always difficult, even when cutting the cord is obviously the smart, rational choice. Whether it be a girlfriend whose poor dental hygiene can be tolerated no longer, or a pet hamster who hasn't moved in days and is starting to attract flies, ending a relationship always includes at least a small dollop of pain for the entity doing the ending. But time marches forward, and tough choices must be made. Reality is a harsh mistress.

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If only the honchos at Polaroid could come to grips with that truism. Four years after the company went bankrupt, their still churning out instant cameras en masse, pitching them as budget solutions to the world's photography needs. This, of course, is a common tactic for companies trying to squeeze every last dollar out of a sunsetting technology—go low-end with your pricing scheme, and you can still attract a consumer segment that otherwise wouldn't mess with you. Except in Polaroid's case, it's simply too late; the future of instant photography is all about ironic university students and artists cursed/blessed with synaesthesia, rather than mainstream (albeit cash deprived) consumers. After the jump, some hopefully coherent thoughts on Polaroid's sad inability to accept its fate. PLUS: Looking for nominees for the worst factory-installed mobile games!

Now, I'll give Polaroid some modicum of credit for recognizing early on that it had to shift the instant-camera marketing strategy—even before there was a digicam in every handbag and pants pocket. I remember back in 1997 when Polaroid slashed prices on its entry-level instants and launched an ad campaign touting them as great party gifts. Heck, I'll confess to actually buying a few in the twilight of the Clinton Era; before there was The Cobrasnake, there were a bunch of us running around drunkenly with OneSteps trying to get cleavage shots.

The problem, of course, is Polaroid's long-standing reliance on what I'll call the razor approach to revenue creation: sell the hardware at a loss, but sell the "software" (i.e. the technology that actually makes the hardware more than a doorstop) at a premium. It's a tried-and-true method of conning consumers, one that maybe started with the Schicks and Gillettes of the world, but now can be found in every single supermarket aisle. Case in point: all those Proctor & Gamble cleaning products that look and act like mops, except you've got to replace the $2 pad every 10 minutes. Evil genius.

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Polaroid probably thought they could rock this strategy for a long, long while. Except they got blindsided by the quicker-than-expected low-ending of digicams. I've discussed this before, but was reminded of the phenomenon on a visit last weekend to Brooklyn's Fulton Street Mall. The place is low-end electronics heaven, in addition to being home to New York's best record store. Checking out the windows as I slurped some coffee, I noticed an Olympus D540 on sale for a mere $39. No, it's not a camera with specs to die for, but it does have a 3X optical zoom—more than I can say for the $120 Sony CyberShot I bought three or four years ago. It's certainly a good deal better than any craptacular Sakar you can buy at CVS or Duane Reade.

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Right below the D540 was a Polaroid OneStep. The price? $19.99. Now, that's low end, to be sure, but once you factor in the film costs (upwards of $25), it's still a total rip. There's just no way Polaroid can slash its hardware prices enough to make the technology a good deal—not unless it can also find a miracle way to manufacture the film for way, way cheaper.

Polaroid, though, doesn't seem to get this. In an October 2005 interview with The New York Times (full disclosure: an employer of mine), company chairman Stewart L. Cohen just wouldn't 'fess up that instant is doomed to nicheness. He hedged a little, but basically said that he expects growth in the Third World "where not everyone has a digital camera," as well as in the security ID biz. Okay, maybe I can buy the former argument a little, at least in the short term. But security IDs? Even the New York Public Library is using digicams for cards now, and they're no spendthrifts.

If Polaroid is really, really wedded to keeping its instant film business alive, it better forget about continually slashing prices on the hardware, and focus on the film. Either that, or just send a free OneStep to every household in America, and hope that induces folks to spend $25 per film pack. Hey, that's how I got hooked on the Mach 3 Turbo razor.

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FACTORY GAMES: I was drinking Knob Creek with some frog design folks the other night, and the conversation eventually turned to all the useless features that gunk up affordable mobile handsets. I mean, when's the last time you used the Calendar feature on the $49 Samsung that Verizon gave you?

But you know what's really useless? Those games, man. Now, granted, I've played my fair share Push Push on my cheapo cell. But given all the hundreds of man hours that probably went into coding and QA testing those games, couldn't they have smoothed out the UI in some more meaningful ways?

This carping is all a roundabout way to get some reader input, of course. My phone's got Push Push, Fly Ribbon, and Spider Hunter—all monochromatic. Can anyone beat those in terms of sheer pointlessness? Drop me a line, brothers and sisters.

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Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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