Apple's Steve Jobs introduces the Macbook Air during a keynote address in San Francisco in 2008. Jeff Chiu / AP Photo
Apple's Steve Jobs introduces the Macbook Air during a keynote address in San Francisco in 2008. Jeff Chiu / AP Photo

The five things Apple guru Steve Jobs learnt from the genius who founded Polaroid

When people first read about Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid Corporation, they are often struck by his similarities with Steve Jobs of Apple. The similarities are no coincidence. Jobs openly stated that Land was one of his heroes and in 1984 went to the home of Polaroid in Cambridge, Massachusetts to meet and pay homage to the role model, who was, like him, a college dropout. Land – scientist and businessman – combined the qualities of the visionary Jobs and his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, without whose engineering skills there would have been no radical new personal computer. But it was Jobs alone who invented Apple, just as Land had invented Polaroid. Here, then, are five things that Jobs learnt from Land.

1. Don’t waste time or money on market research

Much to the dismay of the more conventional members of the Apple board, Steve Jobs had no interest in doing market research or holding focus groups on the new ideas that he and his team cooked up. This was because, as Jobs said in 1982, “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them”. It was a version of a maxim Edwin Land repeated again and again at Polaroid, which was in the business, he said, of inventing new technologies, not of trying to compete with existing ones. Land once said that Polaroid made “things that people didn’t know they wanted until they were available”. In other words, Jobs and Land believed that if you build it, the consumers will come.

When this philosophy went well it meant that no time was lost in committee rooms deciding carefully whether a project went forward or not, and a product’s design wasn’t compromised by too many competing voices. When it went badly, as it did for Land with the Polavision instant movie system in 1977, it led to huge financial losses.

2. Consumer technology can be front-page news

Just because Polaroid didn’t do market research didn’t mean it wasn’t good at marketing. For many years the advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach brought its signature minimalist style to the promotion of Polaroid cameras, a style that the Zen Jobs no doubt admired.

Polaroid also realised that its products had an appeal beyond the usual camera market and made a decision early on to release first news of inventions to major magazines such as Time and Life rather than to the specialist photography press. Land appeared on the cover of both in 1972, and 10 years later Jobs was on the cover of Time. His computer beat him out to be Time's "Machine of the Year" in 1982.

3. Showmanship

In the long tradition of stage magicians who use technological tricks to enhance their shows, Edwin Land realised that his magical cameras were perfectly suited for spectacular display. He had a captive and willing audience every year at the annual Polaroid stockholder meetings, where in between the conduct of formal business, Land would wow his fans with demonstrations of Polaroid’s newest cameras or film. His performances won him the label of America’s greatest corporate showman, a mantle taken on later by Jobs, who like Land could speak eloquently, and at length, without notes.

And like Land, he enjoyed the magician’s reveal, whether it was pulling a black cloth off an Apple Macintosh, or slyly slipping an iPod out of his pocket as the final flourish of a presentation. These product launches became so defining of Jobs’ persona that the recent biopic by Danny Boyle is based around three of them. The film of Land’s life, meanwhile, is yet to be made.

4. Design matters. A lot

Land liked to say that Polaroid worked at the “intersection of science and art”, a phrase that had been applied to photography from its very beginnings. He meant by this that Polaroid was opening up aesthetic possibilities to many people who in the past might not have had the skills to take good photographs.

But he also meant that Polaroid products should be formally as well as functionally pleasing. He was very insistent, for example, that the SX-70 camera should have a genuine cowhide cover, giving his designers a major headache. Jobs took this sort of perfectionism to a new level, regularly trashing the ugliness and bad design of competitors’ technologies and sending his own designers back to the drawing board over and over to make the smallest of changes. He also had a slide he liked to end presentations with, showing Apple at the intersection of Liberal Arts Street and Technology Street.

5. A company is an invention too

Rarely is a chief executive so closely identified with a company as Land was with Polaroid and Jobs was with Apple. In his biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson reports that the Apple founder considered the company his “greatest creation”. Land certainly felt the same about Polaroid and was convinced that his company was unique in the American industrial landscape in its focus on primary research, but also in the way that it cultivated its staff, bringing out their creativity and drawing on their dissatisfaction with the world as they found it.

Jobs was also proud of how he created an environment at Apple where imagination could thrive, although Apple did not promote the same sort of progressive management-worker relations that Polaroid did in the 1960s and 1970s.

So, how similar in the end were the companies of Land and Jobs? They shared the imprint of a founder who valued ideas and invention above making money, even if a lot of money was still made. And although one was East Coast and the other West, they both benefited from a liberal setting nurtured by a rich nearby university culture – in Cambridge, Harvard and MIT; in Cupertino, Stanford. Where they differed perhaps was that Edwin Land always wanted his company to do great and original research, while Steve Jobs insisted above all that his company create great and original products. For now at least, Jobs’ approach has been the better guarantee of a company’s longevity.

Peter Buse is the author of The Camera Does the Rest, from which we begin excerpts on Wednesday, and associate dean (research and enterprise) in the faculty of arts and social sciences at Kingston University in the UK.

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