Kodak invented the digital camera. Then it promptly went bankrupt because digital cameras killed its business. The irony was short-lived, because smartphones quickly came along and killed the digital camera. Now, three years after Kodak declared bankruptcy, you can buy a Kodak smartphone. There is a nice circularity to the whole thing.
In the off position, the Kodak smartphone looks like every other smartphone. Turn it on and it looks, well, worse. There are nine large icons, a very minimal set of options, and a big magnifier function in case any of the oversize menu items need to be made larger still for the user to see them. It’s like something you would expect to find advertised in The Oldie.
Yet that is what makes the Kodak phone so smart—and provides us with another sign that the smartphones have become about as good as they need to be. The Kodak phone isn’t made by Kodak; it’s made by the Bullitt Group, a small British company that buys licenses for well-known consumer brands and makes electronics products stamped with those labels. Bullitt also makes muscular, outdoorsy phones with the brand of Caterpillar, the American maker of muscular, outdoorsy heavy machinery. If such a brand tie-in works for shoes, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work for phones.
At a time when devices from the major smartphone brands have become virtually indistinguishable, and consumers have, to some degree, stopped caring about upgrading to the latest, fastest, sleekest, thinnest device, differentiation in smartphones is increasingly coming from the custom software that smartphone makers like Xiaomi or One Plus are putting into the things, and from the “experiences” they are selling.
But at the other end of the spectrum are companies like Bullitt, which spot a gap in the market and rush to fill it. The Kodak phone is “for people who want less complexity. It’s about sharing and printing,” says Matthias la Gordt Dillie, head of marketing at Bullitt. These are things Kodak is known for. The Cat phones, meanwhile, are marketed as rugged. (And indeed they are. Dillie suggested I chuck one about, which I did. It was fun.)
Niches are by definition a small market. Dillie reckons the total market for the “rugged phone segment” is about 10 million units, or 25% as many iPhones as Apple shipped in the last quarter of 2014 alone. They probably aren’t for the Samsungs and HTCs of the world. But for businesses like Bullitt, says Dillie, “we know there is a lot of money to be made.”