Signs of the times

You go through life and there are things that are always there and you expect them to always remain. And then, one day, they are gone. I have seen that a lot lately.

One example relates back to my childhood. When I was a little kid, my Dad knew everything. Just about any question I had [and I had a lot], he had an answer to. That is, until the day I stumped him and he had to admit that he did not have an answer for me …

When my Dad realized that I was going to be regularly asking him challenging questions, he responded by making an investment: he bought a set of encyclopedias. I have no idea of the exact cost of the books; I am sure they were quite expensive. But I am equally sure that I got good value from them. They were used on an almost daily basis, often for hours at a time. I would frequently get lost. I would look up one subject, follow references to something else and quickly end up with 8 or 10 books around me, all stuffed with bookmarks.

When my children were young, we had a similar challenge, to which we responded by acquiring of a bunch of CD-ROMs [remember Encarta?], which cost real money, though orders of magnitude less than the traditional paper volumes. I guess that modern parents respond to the challenge by ensuring that they have a good broadband Internet connection.

I was reminded of these aspect of parenthood when I heard the news this week that Britannica would no longer be printing traditional encyclopedias. The 2010 edition will be the last. I am not sure why this makes me sad, as I know that the screen in front of me can deliver more information, more quickly at almost zero cost.

The other long term fixture, which was omnipresent throughout the 20th Century, was Kodak. There is hardly a person in the Western world who has not used a Kodak product. As a keen photographer, I was saddened to hear that the company is no more. I have a modest collection [about 30 I think] of Kodak cameras, which span most of the century and show how significant and innovative that company was.

What is curious about the disappearance of these two great iconic names is cause of their demise and the companies’ responses to the challenges. In both cases, their core product was overtaken by new technology. But how they responded to the challenge was very different.

Britannica started diversifying, in a logical way, long before their book selling business totally dried up. Recent reports suggest that at least 90% of their revenues now come from educational software products and information access licensing. Essentially, they creatively embraced the changes in technology and leveraged their experience to be successful.

Kodak’s business was built upon cameras and film. Clearly film was going to go away, but camera making was a core competency for the company. However, instead of applying this creatively to digital cameras, they dabbled in this technology and diversified into a variety of product lines. The result was they lost their camera market share to electronics companies, like Sony, who saw digital photography as a logical progression. The other markets that Kodak tried, like ink-jet printers, were already very crowded with well established suppliers.

Thinking about these two stories, I find my own response interesting. I was scanning eBay for a 2010 Britannica and I am seeking a new home for my Kodak camera collection [if anyone is interested, do email].

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