A little more corporate suicide from Eastman Kodak

I had a chat with a guy at Adobe Systems the other day.  The latest version of Adobe Photoshop CS4 can’t read Kodak PhotoCDs.  Why not?  Kodak was the author of the plug-in that enabled Photoshop to read the proprietary file format and isn’t supporting the code anymore (the Kodak Web page on the subject hasn’t been updated since 1998; another Kodak page says “this product is discontinued.  Kodak no longer offers technical support by telephone or e-mail.”  The company apparently can’t even be bothered to maintain a list of links to software that can read these disks.

Why should Kodak support this format?  Merely to be nice to the tens of thousands of customers who purchased millions of disks from them?  Perhaps not.  Kodak has already pocketed their money and can’t expect to get more from this particular product (though the PhotoCD customers were probably Kodak’s biggest and most loyal customers overall).  However, the company may yet want to try to sell something innovative.  Who in their right mind would take a risk on an Eastman Kodak technology now, knowing that the company wouldn’t pay a programmer for two weeks per year to make sure that PhotoCDs were still readable by Photoshop and other common applications?

Kodak’s management has already pushed the stock down quite a bit in the past couple of decades (chart), but given how they are shooting themselves in the foot with PhotoCD, it might still be a good short.  Note that the decline of film does not explain Eastman Kodak’s decline.  Its erstwhile competitor, Fujifilm, has to bear the additional cross of “film” in its corporate name, but nonetheless has managed to grow to $28 billion in revenue (source) while Kodak was shrinking.

11 Comments

  1. Omar

    December 29, 2008 @ 2:21 am

    1

    I see they still haven’t learned. Years ago, I worked for a company that had a Kodak camera on hand. They went from Win95 to Win2000 and found they couldn’t use the camera anymore. Kodak wouldn’t create a driver because it was a consumer camera and Win2000 was a business OS. I’ve bought a few cameras since then, and get asked for recommendations all the time. Kodak has always been on my “to avoid” list because of their attitude to existing owners.

  2. Sho

    December 29, 2008 @ 4:50 am

    2

    While I agree with the general tone of your post, I have to say this is a pretty dead format. Unless there is evidence of significant numbers of photographers being impacted by it, I’m tempted to say it’s almost a good thing forcing people to move along. Consider:

    - the format is 16 years old
    - the scan qualities are not that high these days
    - no-one should be relying on CDRs for multi-decade archival anyway
    - the CDRs are low-density and a pain to store

    Let it die, I say. Though yes, Kodak should at least provide a list of software which can read these legacy formats.

    I’m no fan of Kodak, btw, but much more because of reasons like Omar’s above, and general dissatisfaction with their quality in the past. These days they look all but doomed. I can’t think of a single product or field in which Kodak displays even equal quality with their competitors in the field; I confess to not even really knowing what they sell besides those clunky-looking cameras which look primitive compared to Canon’s models from 3 years ago.

    The entire company seems to be coasting along, trading on nothing but fading brand recognition. Their efforts to reinvent themselves after the death of film are half-assed and confusing. I guess I’d expect a long slow decline, followed by a cheap buy-out from someone like HP.

  3. J. Peterson

    December 29, 2008 @ 8:06 am

    3

    Hmm, I recently downloaded PhotoCD plugin at the link in your post, copied it into my Photoshop CS4 plugins folder, and was able to tediously move photos off of a Photo CD. This was running on Windows XP (32 bit).

    I say “tediously” because the plugin apparently pre-dates the automation system, requiring you to manually reset the parameters for each conversion. Function keys are your friends…

  4. Rob Sama

    December 29, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    4

    I was involved with Fujifilm Microdisk about a decade ago. They made floppy disks in a joint venture with BASF here in the US. I had previously only been familiar with FujiFilm as a camera film company, so I asked the controller what commonality did all of FujiFilm’s disparate businesses have?

    He told me that FujiFilm considers their core competence to be getting chemical substrates to stick to thin sheets of plastic (or other materials) and that any time there is a need for such a thing, whether in a camera or on a floppy disk or in tape and medical bandages or whatnot, FujiFilm would be there.

    What I learned from this is that Japanese companies organize themselves around their engineering competence, while American companies organize themselves around their consumers, brand image, or captured market share. Japanese companies learn to build something and ask themselves “Now what else can I build with this assembled team of experts?” while American companies gain some market or mind share and ask themselves, “Now that I have these people’s attention, what else can I sell them?”

    What’s astounding about this post is just how bad Americans have gotten at their own approach to business.

    This topic may warrant some more expounding. I may write more on my own blog about it.

  5. Hub

    December 29, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

    5

    There is still open source code to read photoCD (using The Gimp). I don’t have a disc myself to try it out though, as when I had interest in PhotoCD I couldn’t find any place to make one as they all had Fuji Frontier digital minilabs (circa 2001)

    Once upon a time, all the Kodak consumer camera had a nice documentation on how to communicate with them. Kodak was the only manufacturer to do that. A couple of years later, due to a *reorganization*, the documentation disappeared from the website. What does that tell you? I think the proper word was disorganization.

    Another example is Polaroid. They are gone.

  6. Paul Tomblin

    December 29, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    6

    A long long time ago, somebody in the Linux community reverse engineered a driver for PhotoCD, and Kodak sent them a cease and desist. After a while, they relented and allowed it, but man they left people with a bad taste in their mouths.

    And by the way Rob, Kodak was exactly the same as Fuji in that regard. That’s why they had a highly profitable medical division – because the technology of putting consistent thin layers of chemicals on a plastic substrate they developed for photography also is useful for medical testing. They have also, in the past had floppy disk, tape and photocopying branches, and now they have printers (print heads are similar thin film technology).

    The difference is, I believe, that Kodak went is publicly traded in a US stock market, and US stock markets are dominated by short sighted profit chasers instead of men with long term vision like George Eastman. It’s also why they stopped promoting engineers into high management and instead hired high flying bean counters with fancy business degrees but no understanding of technology. Kodak has some of the first patents on digital photography, some dating back to the 1960s, and yet they refused to understand the sea-change and tried to hold back the tide. A company run by engineers wouldn’t have made that mistake.

  7. Scotty R.

    December 29, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

    7

    From inside Kodak:

    With all the layoffs (we’re talking thousands) we’ve witnessed, its pretty safe bet that anyone with technical understanding of the code for PhotoCD was let go years ago. Like a company that now makes fuel-injectors for cars, probably doesn’t have lots of carburetor experts on the payroll anymore.

    I recall PhotoCD being a bridge product intended to give photographers a way to digitally archive their hi-res film files. Emphasis here is on “archive.” If anyone still has a need to edit those 15-year-old PhotoCD files, try using one of those open-source solutions listed above, and re-save the file in a more standardized format.

    Thank you, and wish us luck. 2009 ain’t gonna be pretty.

  8. philg

    December 30, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    8

    Scotty: It isn’t an “archive” if it can’t be read! If Kodak intended PhotoCD to be a permanent archive, they needed to store all of the files in an already-standard format or spend a little bit of effort to ensure the continued readability of their custom format.

    Sho: Agreed that the CD media might not be readable forever, but it isn’t that difficult to copy them all to a USB hard drive. Once the files are on a magnetic disk you still have the challenge of finding software to decode Kodak’s magic format (which they not only don’t support, but as far as I know made life a lot tougher for third-party software developers by never publishing official tech specs). As for re-scanning tens of thousands of slides and negatives to get a higher quality than what came out of the old Kodak scanner… that’s really not practical for most people. It would probably take me three months of full-time effort to locate all of the negs and slides that I wanted scanned, get them organized, and mailed off to a lab. I think it would cost at least $2 per scan to get quality comparable to the old Kodak PhotoCD and maybe $5 to get a drum scan in India. Multiple that by maybe 6,000 images on PhotoCD and you’re talking about something that isn’t very affordable for a lot of photographers and institutions.

  9. Joe Crawford

    December 31, 2008 @ 1:58 am

    9

    That is some sad tale. The saliency of The Dead Media Project http://www.deadmedia.org/ is strong here.

    As to those claiming this is no big deal because of the age of the format, why would PhotoShop need to support a 10 year old format? Wise up! PhotoShop CS4 actually supports some VERY old file formats, much older than PhotoCD: Amiga IFF is 24 years old source and supported in CS4.

    Several folks have left notes about open source tools that read the PhotoCD format, I think folks with knowledge of PhotoCD need to step up and take over from the incompetents at Kodak. It’s sad that a company would abandon customers data in this way.

  10. philg

    December 31, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

    10

    Joe: It is tough for anyone to take over authoritatively from Kodak because Kodak has kept the format secret all of these years. There is a lot of weird color space stuff going on in there. The freeware tools that have reverse-engineered the format aren’t guaranteed to produce good results (and in fact ImageMagick does not produce especially good looking conversions from PhotoCD). You would think that at a minimum they would open-source their old software and publish the format, but they haven’t done that. I’m not sure what good it does them to keep everything proprietary and secret given that they are no longer in this market.

  11. Kragen Javier Sitaker

    January 2, 2009 @ 6:35 pm

    11

    I’m astonished at the people saying that we shouldn’t expect the file format to be supported because it’s 16 years old. PhotoCD is an archival format; Kodak estimated the discs’ archival life at 300 years, although they only guaranteed 100 years. Keeping the format secret has an impact similar to breaking into the National Archive and burning the old photos — except it’s not just one archive, but archives all over the world that used Kodak’s format.

    One more time I’m glad I didn’t take product recommendations from Philip.

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