Kodak presses the digital switch

“Big ideas can happen at any time,” says a recent marketing campaign from photographic giant Eastman Kodak. But the company’s most recently announced ‘big idea’ – a huge investment in digital technologies and a gradual move away from its traditional business – has led a few observers to quip that big ideas can also come much too late.

In September, Kodak made a serious of announcements that suggested executives had finally understood the scale of the challenges facing the company as the world goes digital.

First on the list is a plan to launch a range of ink-jet printers – a good idea for an imaging company, but a move that the company has already experimented with several times without significant success.

Kodak also announced that, from now on, R&D in non-digital products will be wound down, and it will begin an aggressive attack on the markets for digital printing, scanning and cameras.

That shift has been prompted by the continued decline of traditional photographic products and the fact that digital photography has eaten into the company’s core film business much faster than anticipated.

With its range of printers, Kodak will ambitiously attempt to target both the consumer and high-end enterprise markets. In the consumer inkjet printer market, it will find itself up against Hewlett-Packard (HP), Canon and Seiko Epson. And in the market for high-end digital printers, it will pit itself against HP and Xerox.

The scale of the task Kodak has set itself has industry watchers standing back in awe. Many make comparisons with Xerox, which came perilously close to bankruptcy in its battle to go digital in the copier and printing market. Like Kodak, Xerox made several half-hearted efforts with digital printing before finally embracing the technology. “If Eastman Kodak manages to reinvent itself as a giant of digital imaging it will go down in the annals of modern management,” said the Financial Times.

One problem facing the company is that Kodak does not have the manufacturing expertise or scale to achieve

attractive returns in this fiercely competitive business. Printer technology, observers add, is highly commoditised – the only way Kodak can compete with the entrenched suppliers is on price, which could have a crippling effect on its profit margins.

Undaunted, Kodak is investing heavily in its info-imaging strategy, increasing R&D and planning a series of acquisitions. The money will come from a dividend cut, which will raise $1.3 billion, and loans of about $1 billion.

In addition, the company has recently suggested it will sell or close about $1 billion in ancillary businesses, including its slide-carousel business. Kodak senior officials have also signalled that more cost cutting is on the way. The company has already laid off 30,000 workers since 1997. Ultimately, the management team’s hope is that Kodak’s digital business, which is currently loss-making, will grow to 60% of revenue by 2006, as traditional film revenues drop to 40%.

The challenge is immense but Kodak has little choice. The move towards ubiquitous digital technology that has been expected and forecast for a decade or two is now in full flow.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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