Apple Is Turning Into Polaroid

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Sept. 17 2013 5:30 AM

Shaken Like a Polaroid Picture

Apple’s slump looks a lot like the decline of a certain iconic camera company.

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One thing McCune really wanted was a cheaper camera—one that would vastly expand Polaroid’s film sales, which is where most of the company’s income lay. (An earlier budget-priced camera, the Swinger, had sold very well but didn’t move enough film to be highly profitable.) Within a couple of years, the line expanded, principally with the OneStep, the boxy, rainbow-striped plastic camera that virtually every American who was around in the late 1970s will recognize. The OneStep made OK photos, though not great ones. In 1977 it cost about $30, compared with the top-of-the-line SX-70 at $233, and it was sold in supermarkets and discount stores by the millions. Land reportedly thought it was schlocky compared with its elegant older sibling, but was persuaded to get behind it. It vastly broadened the reach of Polaroid photography. It also recreated Polaroid’s brand in subtle ways, making instant photography a mass phenomenon rather than an enthusiast’s medium.

With Land trying to imagine the future and McCune running the show, Polaroid for a few years ran more smoothly than ever. Inside the labs, work began on two new technologies: inkjet printing and something called “filmless electronic photography.” Neither of those projects got out the door, mostly because of internal concerns about cannibalizing Polaroid’s film business. Polaroid’s first digital camera wouldn’t hit the market till 1996, by which time the battle had been mostly lost. 

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McCune was no conservative, and wasn’t afraid of the future. But what indisputably began with him, and sharply accelerated after he passed the presidency off to another insider in 1985, was a backing off from the leading edge. Land, too, began to lose his unerring eye for the new, pushing through an instant-home-movie product called Polavision, a project he’d been husbanding for decades that few people ended up wanting to buy. After Land’s retirement in 1982, the company never introduced a completely new product again. Everything was a refinement or repackaging of what it had figured out already. By the early ’90s, the alarms were clanging away; bankruptcy came in 2001, then again in 2008. Polaroid today is a licensing operation, putting its name on budget-priced tablets and TVs and the like.

So is Tim Cook the Bill McCune of Apple, and is his company headed down Polaroid’s same dreary path? The key, I think, lies in the unknowable black box that is Apple’s development labs. All the tweaking of colors and diversification of markets is fine if it’s an interim, a stopgap, while Apple works out the thing that will define it around 2020, after the mobile phone business has become fully commodified. What clues do we have now? The best one might be found in one of Steve Jobs’ final interviews with his biographer, Walter Isaacson, in which he talked about an entirely new business for Apple: television sets. Jobs claimed that he’d solved the ridiculous situation whereby a snarl of remote controls and cable boxes makes it almost impossible to turn the TV on in an unfamiliar house. He’d worked out the kind of effortless interface at which Apple shines: “I finally cracked it,” he told Isaacson.

If so, that solution could become Apple’s great product of 2015 or 2016. Once again, the company will have found an irritant in your daily life and polished it away, in the process creating an entire business unit from scratch, with a 10-year arc of profits that could put the better part of a trillion dollars in the company’s bank. And here’s what gives me pause: Last week, Tim Cook didn’t mention it.

Christopher Bonanos is an editor at New York magazine and the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid.