We all seem to have some morbid fascination with the death or destruction of the great. It doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about iconic people who publicly fail or once great companies that are circling the drain. We like to analyze and theorize what they did wrong, why they failed and how they might have avoided their demise.

One company that is surely under this type of scrutiny these days is Kodak. Bankruptcy seems to be just around the corner for these guys. Plenty has been written recently about the slow death they have endured over the past ten years or so. Many pundits are confidently explaining the whys and hows of this failure and asserting any number of “if only they . . .” actions Kodak could have taken to prevent their own pending death.

I read with great interest a piece in Information Week by Howard Anderson on the reasons for Kodak’s collapse. He also discusses Motorola and Nortel in the article, but my interest is with Kodak.

What sets Anderson’s piece apart for me is his assertion that Kodak really didn’t do anything wrong. There was no great mis-calculation and no collective refusal to see the realities of their market. He even enumerates many of the correct steps they took.

Digital? – They were their first or at least in the front row of the class. They made better digital cameras then their most recent film cameras ever aspired to be. They were already in the paper business, so print paper was a natural for them. The same is true for inks and dyes. They have a huge following still for their printers.

Market response? – They went everywhere and in many cases did it well. Healthcare? Memory? Anderson names a bunch. It was all for naught.

What is killing them is their film business. This was their great core competency and this is where they made huge profits over many years.

I spent about five years of my early professional life in the business of micrographics. Microfilm was a big business in the ’70s. The micrographics lab I supervised in those days for the University of Missouri bought microfilm by the mile. That’s not an exaggeration.

We would purchase the film used to record the master images and other films used for duplication and distribution to our end users. We also purchased huge amounts of processing chemicals to develop and finish the output we produced.

Every year Kodak, Fuji, Rochester Films and several other companies would submit samples for us to test. We maintained stringent quality standards and our supply contract was a winner take all kind of deal. We awarded the contract to the company that produced the best imagery as measured in our lab using a variety of techniques. Kodak always won. But, each year Fuji would score a little higher and a little higher again the next.

Anderson points out that Kodak’s dominance in the film arena was only threatened by Fuji after Fuji won over the professional photographers. Ultimately, they forced Kodak to respond with more and more investment in a technology they thought they already owned.

This investment was made just in time to see digital finally surpass film in the market as the medium of choice for many photographers.

Without film, without cameras, what’s left for Kodak? How many memory cards can you sell in a year? How can you make money selling printers at a loss? How much ink do you sell to recover your printer loss and make up for the lost film business?

There are a lot of very smart, very worried people in Rochester New York trying to answer that question right now.

To read Howard Anderson’s piece, “Why Did Kodak, Motorola and Nortel Fail?” please click Here.