Mad Dog 21/21: Land, Hope, And Glory
September 21, 2015 Hesh Wiener
The remarkable Edwin Land was a persnickety inventor who wove science and art, a college dropout who never stopped learning and teaching. Land and his Polaroid Corporation built a tower of brilliant things; the SX-70 camera stood at its pinnacle. His life and work inspired Steve Jobs, mastermind of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, iPad, iTunes app store, and the magnificent, inimitable Apple Inc. After Land left Polaroid, it withered into a husk. Since Steve Jobs died, Apple, IBM’s only hope, has struggled. If Apple eventually collapses as Polaroid did, its demise will accelerate the ruin of IBM.
Jobs’ admiration for Land is noted in his authorized biography (and emphasized in the Wikipedia article on Jobs). “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid,” [Jobs explains,] “but I liked electronics . . . then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Jobs, Land, and long before them Thomas Edison had, each in his own way, a knack for inventing things that would very quickly be understood by a public that could never have imagined any of their developments until they were placed right in front of them. They each had a gift of seeing in their imaginations what was obvious to them . . . and then to create working physical embodiments of the objects they dreamed up. This process was not always quick and it often required persistence.
Edison’s laboratory tried and rejected hundreds of potential filaments before finally finding a way to make some that worked. Even then, those first carbon filaments were barely good enough. So Edison’s people kept at it, moving from carbon thread to carbonized bamboo fibers. In Germany, rivals created lamps using tantalum filaments and other engineers in neighboring Austria later moved to tungsten. General Electric, an heir to Edison’s enterprise, eventually licensed tungsten technology, which is still with us today.
Land’s SX-70 may seem like a single invention but actually it is a symphony of original technologies. The optical system of the folding camera is unique in photography and in some ways has never been bettered. The camera’s electronic systems are powered by what are called mustard pack batteries, multi-cell batteries built inside flexible, leak proof flexible plastic housings. Even the flashbulbs were special, using circuitry that was quite exotic at the time to steer power to successive single-use flashlamps assembled in modules of ten. And then, of course, there is the camera’s self-contained image-capturing and photo developing chemistry in a multi-layer package that was activated, after exposure, by travel through the camera’s pressure rollers. There were some minor upgrades fielded after the initial SX-70, but for the most part the first model introduced was complete and by many measures absolutely unmatched for all the years it remained in production. It was as if Apple’s first iPhone was the Model 6 rather than the gadget Apple first produced, which was to mobile phones what the early Edison wax cylinder phonographs were to consumer audio players. Land’s SX-70 was more like Edison’s motion picture systems, built on a foundation of technologies that were in part also developed by Edison and his organization, but so stunning in their impact that the public was immediately mesmerized by the machines that showed dreams on a wall.
In the case of the iPhone, Jobs’ vision was nearly complete and largely perfected from the outset, but the technology available to Apple, even as it led the world, was not nearly good enough in its initial iterations. Moreover, the iPhone’s development was to a small but significant extent guided by apps that no one person, not even Steve Jobs, could have imagined.
Notwithstanding any limitations of the first models, the impact of the iPhone was huge . . . and it continues to grow. The power of Jobs’ phone concept was powerfully amplified by the supporting infrastructure already in place at Apple, a set of services first created to provide iPod users with access to music and other content. The iPhone ultimately enriched this by adding Siri, an interactive AI-based service that for years has done more or less what IBM’s Watson developers can still only dream about: iPhone users are in a world that does quite a good job of making their wishes for personalized information processing come true.
The iPad gave the world a very good example of what an electronic tablet can do, but it has not yet become as compellingly attractive as the iPhone. It may be that Jobs and Apple rushed the iPad to market before inventing features and services that might make it as astonishingly creative as its predecessor, the iPhone. But that is not to say the attempt to get the iPad into the market as quickly as possible was an error. Edwin Land’s arc of accomplishment turn downward as Polaroid released, after ten years, its instant movie system. It arrived too late. Sony had unleased the Betamax VCR, and Japan Victor was on its heels with a rival video recording technology that would ultimately crush Sony’s proprietary offerings.
Had Polaroid been able to get its movie system into the market five years earlier, there is no doubt that the company’s history and that of Edwin Land would have told a markedly different tale. In other words, any haste on the part of Jobs and Apple when it came to getting the iPad out the door might have been the best or at perhaps least bad strategic path. We’ll never know.
Although Jobs and Land never became friends, they were acquainted. They met a couple times, according to an article that appeared in the New York Times not long after Jobs died. By the time they met, Land was past his peak, headed for the tragedy that wrecked his career and with it Polaroid Corporation. That tragedy was, of course, the failure of Land’s instant movie system, a chemical technology overwhelmed by the electronic technology of video recording. It was a grim end to a career in photography that began when Land introduced the first Polaroid instant camera, a monochrome apparatus that was unveiled in 1947. Land’s star kept rising, and in 1972, 25 years after the first Land camera was unveiled, Polaroid showed the public its instant color photography system, the folding single-lens reflex camera called SX-70. Land was so far ahead of his time then that a product development cycle as long as a whole human generation was perfectly okay. That was not the case five years later when Polavision made its debut.
The 1947 camera was hardly Land’s first invention. In the 1930s, Land and a Harvard chemistry professor, George Wheelwright, went into business making the polarizing light filters that would eventually give their name to the company first built to exploit this invention and related technologies. Later, during World War II, Land and his colleagues applied their discoveries and ingenuity to a number of projects connected to the optical systems used in bombsights and elsewhere. Land’s contributions to the military continued during the Cold War and afterwards, and included some innovative photographic systems used by the U-2 spy plane.
Still, time moves on. The photographic world for which Land is best known evolved from chemistry (which Land studied at Harvard before dropping out) to electronics. Polavision was stillborn. And instant photography was eventually overwhelmed by electronic image recording and processing. This not only wiped out what was left of Polaroid, but wrecked the far larger Eastman Kodak company, which remarkably didn’t learn a thing as it watched Polaroid go down the drain.
It remains to be seen where Apple is in its life cycle. The company has very capable leadership in the form of Tim Cook and his colleagues, but not the corporate charisma it enjoyed when Jobs was in charge. It may turn out that some new Apple invention will invigorate the company the way the iPhone has. But the results Apple has achieved with the iPad are disappointing to investors and fanbois alike.
Sales of the iPad took off in 2012 and grew, albeit more slowly in 2013. But growth ended in 2014 and remains negative today. And IBM has jumped into this market at a time of considerable distress for both Apple’s iPad group and pretty much all of IBM.
IBM has made a big point of moving its client technology to the Apple worlds of iPad and portable Macintosh devices. It says it will offer suites of apps that make these machines a superior choice for users and also for itself as it migrates something like half its employees to Mac laptops. (IBM hasn’t said much about the other half, undoubtedly making those other 200,000 IBMers wonder how long they will be part of the new, Applefied IBM.)
IBM’s undisguised strategy of walking away from the legacy goods and services that until pretty recently made it quite wealthy and powerful is bound to shake up its biggest and oldest customers. This would be just fine if there were clear signs that the new world into which IBM says it is moving–Apple clients, cloud computing, Watson-inspired services–embodied some clear and attractive concepts. But IBM hasn’t yet persuaded anyone, maybe not even anyone inside the company, that it has a strategy that will be the iPhone of big enterprise and big government. It hasn’t even made it clear to most observers (and, we fear, to most customers and IBM employees) that it has a vision not more muddled than that of Apple with its iPad. IBM’s app dreams may wandering in a desert, just like the Apple Watch. The company doesn’t have a sensible offering that adds mobility and high tech razzle-dazzle to the huge core business is it busy wounding with neglect.
Basically, IBM didn’t do something smart, creative, and financially alluring with tablet technology, as Amazon has done with its Kindle products. Instead, IBM, these days more easily impressed with nonsense than valid ideas, appears to have grabbed the smelly end of the selfie stick.