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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Devices and desires

Microsoft is to allow games developed for its Xbox to be made available on other companies’ consoles; arch rival Sony may be having similar thoughts. Apple, meanwhile, has been forced to include the standard USB-C connector on its European products from this year, even if owners continue to struggle with the firm’s pentalobe screws. So things may now be opening up (though not yet literally, in the case of the iPhone), but the entire history of entertainment technology is one of companies jealously circling the wagons to tie customers in to their own products, content and even locations.

Today, of course, so much of what we like is accessed or stored online, from music to films and from images to words, that acquiring a mechanical device dedicated to each function is rapidly proving unnecessary. This, in turn, has reduced the hold those makers have since others’ products do more. A growing ‘platform neutrality’ amongst consumers and a recognition that brand loyalty isn’t all it might be are also factors. It wasn’t always like this, however. Over the past century or so, some famous names have proved remarkably canny at making sure that, once your money is handed over, you really can’t go anywhere else.


Recorded music in the 1990s… 

At this time Sony was the most innovative and successful of the Japanese giants that dominated the home electronics field. Its Trinitron television tube was regarded as the best available, the Walkman revolutionised personal listening and the compact disc, co-developed with Philips, did the same for the wider pre-recorded audio market. It was something even smaller that saw Sony really playing for keeps, though.


Its Mini CD was just 80mm in diameter compared to the standard 120mm compact disc, and held four tracks totalling about 20 minutes of music. This was not seen as a limitation, as Sony intended and promoted this new format as the future of the pop single. Record companies leaned in to the idea, packaging the tiny discs in an ingenious sleeve-cum-case that was large enough (just) to attract attention in a shop but which folded, origami-like, for home storage. So confident was Sony that, to complement and indeed facilitate this new idea, the company designed and launched a dedicated player for the new discs, the D-88 or Pocket Discman. The smallest CD player ever made, its compact dimensions are obvious only when set up for the full-size discs, which project beyond its edges.

Though initially popular in Japan, neither the Mini CD single nor its accompanying player really caught on but the failure taught Sony one valuable lesson. In 1989 it bought an entire film studio, Columbia Pictures, in order to guarantee content for any hardware venture it might choose to launch in the future.


Instant cameras in the 1960s…

As we shall shortly see, photography had a long and tricky birth. The initial challenge was to reduce exposure times so that the idea became practical for subjects other than landscapes; the second was to make developing and fixing of the image quick and clean. Photography had existed for a century before one man wondered if this last step might be taken to its logical conclusion, with a camera whose images could be seen almost immediately the button was pressed. His name was Edwin Land.


Holding more patents than anyone except Thomas Edison, Land specialised in optical technology and especially polarisation – exploiting a property of waves, his polarised sunglasses and other eye wear reduced glare from reflections. He then turned to photography, aiming to take the necessary chemical development of a latent-image picture and compress this into 60 seconds or less, and all within the film pack itself. The first Polaroid ‘instant’ camera was released in 1948 and Land enjoyed a monopoly of instant photography films and cameras for almost thirty years, until Eastman Kodak began selling its own versions in the 1970s in a move that angered Land enough to file a patent-infringement suit.


Both firms’ products existed uneasily for a decade more until, in a landmark 1990 ruling, Kodak was ordered to cease manufacture of its instant products, recall those already sold and pay nearly a billion dollars in damages to Polaroid. It was a humiliation of colossal proportions, although sadly Polaroid itself was soon displaced by cheap, disposable 35mm cameras and, ultimately, the video and digital revolutions.


Motion pictures in the 1920s… 

In the golden age of Hollywood players practiced – rather ruthlessly – vertical integration, whereby one entity owns a process from start to finish. In the world of motion pictures this began even before a frame of film was shot. Stars were put under an exclusive contract (it’s why you see the credit ‘So-and-so appears courtesy of X’ on old posters), preventing the actor or actress from working for any other studio for several years; the director and other craftsmen were usually similarly bound. The studio then used its own soundstages, backlots and equipment, whether cameras or costumes, to actually produce the film. It then acted as the distributor, marketing the finished movie to an audience, and the exhibitor, who gets bums on seats to watch it. Ironically for a system that fashioned so many crime thrillers, it was this final step that proved its downfall.

For decades film studios had started or acquired their own cinema chains in order to screen the films they’d just made, locking the public into a specific theatre if they wanted to see a certain film. An example that is still in use today (albeit under different arrangements) is the Plaza Theatre in Regent Street, built by Paramount Pictures in 1926 as its flagship London venue. It was the dawning of the era of the ‘talkies’ so the studio hedged its bets by commissioning a luxury cinema with stage facilities; the décor was also a mixture, with a Neoclassical exterior concealing a Renaissance interior of Italian plasterwork and antique furniture. A board room sat within the blue and gold-tiled dome and the Jermyn Street elevation preserves the original incised EXIT signs. 

With complete control over every stage of the filmmaking process, the US Department of Justice repeatedly challenged the studios’ power under American antitrust or competition legislation. The eventual outcome was the Supreme Court judgement United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. of 1948, which forced film producers to dispose of their exhibition assets and had many other important consequences for the industry.                                          


Colour photography in the 1910s… 

Many pioneers contributed to the invention of photography, whereby light-sensitive materials could be momentarily exposed to a scene via a lens and shutter and reveal a permanent image of that subject after being processed in chemicals. Early experiments in the first quarter of the nineteenth century tested glass, paper and metal along with a wide range of developing methods. Within a few decades commercialised systems were in widespread use but it was not until the end of the century that the film-based, latent image approach saw photography become convenient, popular and accessible. All of these early efforts produced black and white results only – colour would take its own path to reliable amateur usage.


Launched in 1907, the Autochrome process marketed by Auguste and Louis Lumière quickly became the market leader. Within a single photographic plate, five million potato starch grains per square inch – each dyed red-orange, green or blue-violet – absorbed the primary colours which appeared combined, as a full spectrum image, when viewed due to their microscopic size. Reversal processing was used to develop each plate into a transparent positive, just as with slide film. Paper prints could not be made but reproduction in magazines was a major success and the Autochrome Lumière was the only real choice for colour photography for thirty years, with millions of blank plates coming out of the factories of Monplaisir, Lyon.

Celluloid was later introduced as the substrate material but by then other manufacturers has begun to release ‘faster’ or more light-sensitive stocks that reduced exposure times and increased flexibility; Kodachrome, introduced in 1935, proved the most enduring.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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