Book Review: Instant: The Story of Polaroid

Edwin Land built an amazing technology driven company. Land eschewed convention in many ways. He hired women and put them in managerial positions; he hired people with fine arts degrees to head highly technical projects; and his goal was not to simply produce a product. Land’s approach was quite the opposite – he believed that if the science and technology they developed was good enough, it would naturally find a place in the market. Ultimately, Land didn’t want to make any product someone else already made. Rather, he relished the challenge of pursuing uncharted territory, saying “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”

An obvious, more recent, parallel to Land and Polaroid would be Steve Jobs and Apple. In fact, Steve Jobs has said that Polaroid is the model he used when creating Apple. Jobs even adopted Land’s showmanship. Just as Land put on demonstrations at shareholder meetings of Polaroid’s newest products, supplemented with slide show presentations and live music, so did Jobs when unveiling new products. Whereas Land courted shareholders, Jobs courted software and hardware developers as well as the public. By doing so, Jobs gained celebrity status and helped increase the popularity of Apple and its products. Unlike Land and Polaroid, Jobs and Apple do not limit themselves to only making new products. Rather, it would seem that Steve Jobs’ motto would be “Don’t undertake a project unless you can do it better than anyone else and only if doing so is nearly impossible.” So far, Apple has been able to continue to do so despite the death of Steve Jobs. Only time will tell if Apple can maintain its high level of performance without its founder. Polaroid couldn’t do it, but Apple has always been more product-oriented than Polaroid. Perhaps this, along with visionary stewardship, can keep Apple from following the Polaroid path.

Polaroid is, sadly, an example of a billion dollar corporation going from great heights to near non-existence. Despite fundamentally changing how people view photography, curating and promoting the arts, and developing an impressive array of technologies, Polaroid has descended to the point of being irrelevant.

Instant: The Story of Polaroid offers a clear and concise history of Land and Polaroid. There are many full color reproductions of instant photos throughout. The pages are made of heavy stock. The book is an easy read and relevant in the world of today for several reasons; A warning for corporations that even the best can fall, a road map that can lead to innovation, and a business model that embraces the arts and treats its employees well. Finally, this book provides a brief biography of an American icon that isn’t counted among the greats such as Ford or Edison often enough.

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