The evolution of photography provides clear examples of how understanding the dynamics of innovation is essential to a company's survival and success
Technological innovation can reshape the competitive landscape of an entire industry with astonishing speed. Established businesses may fail to bridge the discontinuity and wither away, while newcomers with novel concepts or methods rise to dominance. Industry after industry exhibits similar patterns of transformation when a new product or process technology emerges to challenge old formats. A look at one industry(*) in which innovation has historically represented the key to success can throw light on these patterns and help identify the qualities that determine whether a firm will survive the encounter with dramatic technological change.
The photographic industry
Anyone who watched the Public Broadcasting Service series, The Civil War, first aired in the US in 1990, must surely have been struck by the hundreds of photographs used by producer Rick Burns to acquaint us with the history of that dramatic conflict. The images of generals, private soldiers, battlefields, and the war's hapless victims played across the screen as a background to interviews with historians and readings from letters and diaries of the period. Most of these pictures were remarkably vivid, despite the fact that they were taken with equipment based on mid-nineteenth-century technology. Indeed, by the time of the American Civil War, the technology for producing photographic images was two decades old, widely disseminated, and had already entered its second wave of technical innovation.
From copper plates to wet and dry glass
The origins of the photographic industry can be traced back to 1839 and the development of the daguerreotype in France. This method of producing images on sensitized silver-coated copper plates was an instant hit in the United States, spawning a small industry of practitioners, suppliers, and manufacturers. Samuel Morse, who later invented the telegraph, took the first-ever photograph in the western hemisphere that same year. As early as the mid-1840s, a small chain of portrait studios had been established in major cities across America.
By the mid-1850s, the daguerreotype had given way to a new technology that used a transparent and sticky substance called collodion to coat a glass plate. Just before shooting a picture, the photographer would photosensitize the collodion-coated plate with silver nitrate. When the glass was exposed to light, a negative image could be developed on it, "fixed" in a darkroom, and then printed onto photosensitive paper by exposing the glass plate and paper to bright sunlight.(*)
The use of wet collodion plates greatly improved the photographic art. Though slow and unable to produce color, the technology provided images of a quality rivaling those produced today. A major drawback lay in the fact that the plates had to be sensitized and developed immediately before and after exposure. This required an abundance of equipment, a darkroom, and a fair knowledge of the underlying chemistry. Another drawback was the sheer weight and size of the dozens - if not hundreds - of glass plates that a photographer might use in a short time.
Taken together, the requisite chemical processes and the cumbersome methods of processing photographs limited the market to a cadre of professionals and dedicated amateurs. The barriers that prevented the expansion of photographic supply production - the perishability of photosensitive materials and the complexity of photography for the average person - were technological. The technological developments that were later to allow the photographic industry to grow to its full potential required a few intermediate steps. One such was the introduction of glass plates coated with a dry gelatin emulsion. This emulsion, introduced in the late 1870s, made it possible to produce nonperishable photosensitized glass plates in factories, thus making photography less complicated, more convenient, and cheaper, thanks to large-scale production of one of its key components. …