Is Apple on the same path as Polaroid? Their uncanny similarities may raise some eyebrows

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In late September we experienced a behavior from Apple that was uncharacteristic from the company. CEO Tim Cook apologized for the recent Maps product glitches and suggested that its iPhone consumers use a competitive product instead (see here). Articles raced around looking for someone to blame (see here), or to lambast the “un-Apple” behavior of Cook (see here). The bottom line is that the future of a Jobsless Apple has been re-ignited with this recent mess-up and response behavior.

This recent event and the debate that it has unleashed has suggested that certain figureheads are simply so powerful in their thinking, resilience, and attitude that their departure will have a profound effect on the Company regardless of a robust succession plan. A look at Polaroid and we can see incredible similarities with Apple. Much like Apple, Polaroid was guided to the heights of its sector by a visionary head that became a living legend during his time. His name was Edwin Land. His approach to growing a business are strikingly similar to those of Jobs. In fact, as you will see in the film below, Steve modeled some of his thinking after Land.

Edwin Land believed that obsessive refinement of his technologies was the only way to grow his business. He still holds 444 patents (see here), and developed more ground-breaking innovations for the picture business that still influence product development to this day (see his bio here). The reason that Land broke so much ground was because he had a unique mindset that he ensured everyone in his Company embraced. This quote from him says it all – “Don’t do anything that someone else can do. Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” (see Land quotes here). This is very similar to a Jobs quote from 1984 – ” We’re gambling on our vision, and we would rather do that than make me-too products. For us, it’s always the next dream.” (see best Jobs quotes here). Moreover, Jobs created a very clear vision for all his people to follow and for the world to admire which is why the Company remains one of the most attractive places to work.

Land also was committed to recruiting the best talent and thus established Polaroid close to great Universities. The company was in Cambridge, Massachusetts and aggressively sought talent from Harvard and MIT. This is very similar to Apple whose base in Cupertino is close to Stanford and Berkeley and it is known for grabbing the best of the best from top schools.

Edwin Land had an absolute obsession with design and ensured that his products looked beautiful, elegant, and were of an unmatched design quality and superiority. In fact, his desire to balance science with the aesthetic made him scout science-minded art history majors, trained them, and then gave them important roles at the company. They were called Princesses. (read this in Christopher Bonanos’ book – Instant – The story of Polaroid).

Land was also famous for his annual shareholder meetings where he would showcase his new products with incredible magnetism. His stage presence and the beautiful simplicity of the products made everyone in the audience want one as soon as they left. This business ritual is almost identical to that of Apple’s annual convention where Jobs was renowned for crowd-frenzying product introductions (see some of Steve Jobs’ best speeches)

Lastly, Edwin Land also did not believe in research. He famously said that ” It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” This is strikingly similar to Jobs’ quote – “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Unfortunately, another similarity between Edwin Land and Steve Jobs is that both left their companies while they were on top. If that were the end of it, I would have no point. However, we know the fate of Polaroid. Many say that it has to do with a rapidly dying industry. However, it is much more than that. The core tenants that fueled the unstoppable rise of Polaroid became weaker. Some of those that have been written about in this article (for a more detailed account, please ready the book mentioned above). After Land, the Company and those that led it obsessed less about them. As a result, they were not ahead of the curve when their core industry radically changed. While Apple is far from being behind the curve, the Maps product that is mentioned at the start of this article and how the company is behaving could suggest a softening of the attitude of perfection and future obsessed that Jobs preached. Yet, perhaps Cook is actually behaving like Steve more that is given credit for. After all, Jobs has said ” Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” That is exactly what was done, and there are a ton of great innovations in the pipeline.


Book trailer for INSTANT: THE STORY OF POLAROID by Christopher Bonanos from Princeton Architectural Press on Vimeo.

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