Skip to main content

Products don't always evolve

I am truly puzzled by a new fad that's sweeping the youth of today. I'm puzzled because it's not new at all. In fact it seems to me to be a retrograde step in the relentless evolution of technology. I'm talking about the Polaroid or Instant Camera.

This is one of the originals from the 1960s (in fact Mr Land invented the first 'Instant Camera' in 1948):

 And here's the one my son just got for Christmas:

In 2008, Polaroid went bust (again!). The world had gone digital. Film cameras had all but disappeared. Serious photographers today use digital SLRs made by the likes of Canon and Nikon. The rest of us use our ubiquitous smartphones. And with cloud storage, we are no longer constrained to the thousands of high resolution images our phones and cameras could store locally. Now our personal picture-taking capacity is limitless. Film and cartridge cameras limit you to a handful of pictures before you had to - expensively - load the camera again.

And because our pictures are digital, we can take as many as we want, select the best, delete the rest, alter the ones we want to keep and share them with the world through online albums and of course, social media... where we can also 'tag' who's in them (so they can be alerted instantly the moment they're published as well). Not so printed pictures. At least not easily and not as first generation images (ie they have to be converted into a digital file first).

So why the sudden excitement about instant cameras again, where you load them with cartridges containing 20, 50 or 100 sheets? You can't save the pictures you've taken on a PC, your phone or the internet. You can't edit them. You can only produce one version of what you've taken - good light, bad light, in focus, out of focus, well framed, badly framed, what you hoped for, not what you hoped for. So it's a single version of something that isn't actually instant (unlike a digital pic that you see on your screen instantly, you have to wait ages for it to develop after you've pulled it out of the camera), and where it's relatively random whether it's any good or not. Presumably long after the moment has passed to capture the image you wanted.

I asked my 21 year-old university student son why he wanted something so apparently archaic. So inflexible and so unlike any tech stuff we're surrounded by today. He replied that this was part of its appeal. It's not like all his other tech. It has retro charm, no connectivity to worry about, no bandwidth requirements and no compatibility issues (other than the replacement cartridges). It also makes you take more care about the picture you're taking. You can't take a quick one, then recompose as often as the subjects will hold still.

But the main appeal, apparently, is that it's not repeatable like a digital picture that be shared widely or even go viral. Every picture is strictly unique. There never will be another one exactly like it. Ever. It's a unique memento and a unique gift. From a practical point of view, it saves you having to print it out if you want to keep it in your wallet, a picture frame (although it is very small) or in a physical album (compiled ones of holidays and people's lives are becoming increasingly popular gifts these days). The end result is a piece of paper with an image on it. A digital picture taken by a camera or phone can end up as piece of paper with a picture on it, but that requires computers, programmes (now annoyingly called apps, whether on a smartphone or not - why?!), printers, special paper and probably some scissors. Click. Wait a bit. Unique printed picture. Which is weirdly what from time to time, young people these days apparently want. What a shame just 10 short years ago, Polaroid and their backers didn't predict this. They would have been exceptionally well placed to clean up today (in fact their brand lives on, but purchased from the liquidators).

What is happening is that our needs are evolving as the world changes around us. We've still got our smartphones and their ever increasing speed, quality and flexibility for taking pictures. But what we've also developed is a need for something more private. And with less hassle for when all you want is a print - either to keep as a unique memento, or to give to someone special as a way of saying 'this is the only version of this image that exists or ever will exist. I'd like you to have it, and only you'.

The business lesson is simple. Don't look at products and think 'what can I make it do better?'. Look at behaviours and think 'what will help them be achieved better?'. And by better I mean faster, cheaper, more securely or more easily.

It's a lot easier to find a product and to evolve it. Make it faster, cheaper or easier to use. Whether the market wants to buy it is still a risk. The trick is to work out what people want to do with it first. Then think about how you can help them do it faster, cheaper, more securely, more easily or perhaps, and especially these days, more privately. It might even mean going back to basics to see if anything already exists, but might have been passed over as 'old-fashioned' to see if it can be revived.

My hats off to the instant camera revivalists who spotted the trend - not that I can get excited about it. But then I'm already retro.


Popular posts from this blog

Phillips screws - yes I'm angry about them too

Don't get me wrong. They're a brilliant invention to assist automation and prevent screwdrivers from slipping off screw heads - damaging furniture, paintwork and fingers in the process. Interestingly they weren't invented by Mr Phillips at all, but by a John P Thompson who sold Mr P the idea after failing to commercialise it. Mr P, on the otherhand, quickly succeeded where Mr T had failed. Incredible isn't it. You don't just need a good idea, you need a great salesman and, more importantly, perfect timing to make a success out of something new. Actually, it would seem, he did two clever things (apart from buying the rights). He gave the invention to GM to trial. No-brainer #1. After it was adopted by the great GM, instead of trying to become their sole supplier of Phillips screws, he sold licenses to every other screw manufacturer in the world. A little of a lot is worth a great deal more than a lot of a little + vulnerability (watch out Apple!). My gromble is abo

Introducing Product Relationship Management - it's what customers want.

Most businesses these days have Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems which store and process vasts amounts of information about us. They use this information to generate communications, amongst other things, which target us to buy their products and services. CRM is all about how a business relates to its customers: Past (keeping them loyal through aftersales and service), Present (helping them buy through bricks and clicks channels) and Future (prospecting). Most businesses will at some stage have declared themselves 'customer-centric'. They will probably have drawn diagrams on whiteboards that look something like these: But there's a problem with this whole approach of keeping the customer at the centre of your world and the focal point for everything you do. Is it what the customer wants ? Of course companies who ignore their customers eventually go out of business. And those who treat their customers well, tend to thrive. But is it really in the best inte

The Secrets of Hacker Golf

Social media is awash with professional golfers selling video training courses to help you perfect your swing, gain 50 yards on your drive and cut your handicap. They might help a few desperate souls, but the rest of us hackers already know everything we need to complete a round of golf without worrying the handicap committee or appearing on a competition winner's list. What those pros don't realise is that for us hacking golfers who very occasionally hit shots that if you hadn't seen how they were hit, end up where the pros might have put them, we already know everything we need to know - and more. Unlike pros who know how to time the perfect swing in order to caress a ball 350 yards down the centre of a fairway, we hackers need to assemble a far wider set of skills and know-how to complete 18 holes, about which pros have no comprehension, need, or desire to learn. Here are some of them: Never select your shot until after you've hit it. A variation on this is to alway