The Apple Parallel

He was a college dropout, obsessed with product design and patenting pocket inventions. A visionary and perfectionist with sophisticated tastes, he lived to invent covetable products that would not only change the world, but were also beautiful to look at and easy to use. Thus, he built a tiny garage start-up into an international corporate giant that managed to revolutionize the art world and pop culture and still maintain a stock price in the stratosphere. At annual stockholder meetings, the focus was solely on him: he personally demonstrated the brand’s latest innovations on a dramatically lit stage, and the combination was magic. Oh, and he also ran great ads.

A eulogy for Steve Jobs on the first anniversary of his death?

Nope. Actually, I’m describing the larger-than-life inventor/entrepreneur Edwin Land (1910-1991), founder of Polaroid, who happened to be Steve Jobs’ hero, and on whom Jobs modeled much of his role at Apple.

The Jobs-Land link is fleshed out in a fascinating new book by Christopher Bonanos, called “Instant: The Story of Polaroid.” In fact, according to Bonanos, the late Apple co-founder met with Land twice. In one of his meetings with Land, Jobs made a pilgrimage to the Polaroid labs in Cambridge, Mass., reported Apple’s then-CEO John Sculley in his autobiography. “Dr. Land was saying: ‘I could see what the Polaroid camera should be. It was just as real to me as if it was sitting in front of me, before I had ever built one.’ And Steve said: ‘Yeah, that’s exactly the way I saw the Macintosh. ...There was no way to do consumer research on it, so I had to go and create it and then show it to people and say, ‘Now what do you think?’'

“Every significant invention must be startling, unexpected, and must come into a world that is not prepared for it,” Land is quoted in Bonanos' book. “If the world were prepared for it, it would not be much of an invention.”

Thirty years later, when a reporter asked Jobs how much market research Apple had done before introducing the iPad, he responded: “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

While reading Bonanos’ crisp and delightful book, I couldn’t help but also conjure up a link between Edwin Land and “Mad Men”’s Don Draper. Of course, unlike Don, Land was an inventor, family guy, and man of substance. (In Cambridge, he created and ran one of the greatest labs and scientific think tanks anywhere in the world, and many people referred to him as “Dr. Land,” as Sculley did. But he never graduated from Harvard -- where, much later, he received an honorary doctorate.)

But the fictional Don’s best moment also involved photography, and innovation, when he pitched his clients on renaming a slide wheel a “carousel.”  “Well, technology is a glittering lure,” Don stated, in his most memorable speech. “This device isn't a spaceship.... It's a time machine. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again...” 

Whether or not apocryphal, the story goes that the reason Land focused his sights on developing an instant camera in the first place was that one day, while taking photos of his 3-year-old daughter Jennifer, she asked: “Why can’t I see the picture now?”

Land had actually started by selling the results of one of his patented inventions, “circular polarizers” -- optic filters that were adapted to sunglasses. During World War II, the company made millions on military contracts for aviator goggles. The development of the instant camera came about only because Land didn’t want to fire his by-then hundreds of employees.(Land joked that he roughed out the details for the camera in a few hours, “except for the ones that took from 1943 to 1972 to solve.”)

Indeed, Land’s proudest accomplishment was the gorgeous chrome and leather, collapsible SX-70 camera of the 1970s, which was iconic and became the iPhone of the moment. Always prescient, he even envisioned a time when a camera would be more like a wallet, slipped into a pocket and used all day long. 

While much has been written about Polaroid’s beginnings and Land’s life, this book is the first to research what happened to the company since his death. It’s a sad tale: Since 2001, the company has declared bankruptcy twice and been sold three times. One of the former CEOs is now serving a 50-year prison sentence for fraud.

But the cautionary part actually started way before then, while Land was still in charge. Constantly inventing and iterating, even as the product was already on the market, (just as Apple does), Land’s end was hastened by his perfectionist determination to sell “Polavision.” Yet another “pola” product, it was a beautiful, instant 8-millimeter home-movie system, which took more than 10 years (and nearly a billion dollars) to get on the market. By the time it arrived in retail stores in the late ‘70s it was dead on arrival, killed by Sony’s clunky Betamax video cameras.

Why are we so fascinated with this whole story?  In part because in this age of digital everything, we’re attracted to analog anything. (As Americans, we also love instant anything.) The Polaroid instant camera was the last magical analog invention.

Also, most baby boomers have formative memories of Polaroid use. For 20 years at family functions, my uncle used the big monster of the 1950s camera, whose photos required a finishing goo. We kids used to fight over who got to use the roller. The smell was so distinctive that if I were to inhale it today, I’m sure I’d have a madeleine moment.

I’m rooting for some sort of comeback. And let’s hope Tim Cook, Apple’s new CEO, is paying attention.

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1 comment about "The Apple Parallel".
  1. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , October 10, 2012 at 1:58 p.m.
    Wanted to mention that the cameras were originally called the "Polaroid Land Camera." And consumers thought that meant they couldn't use them near water!