Thursday, November 18, 2010

How great companies die

We all know of great companies that have gone under. When we are teenagers and have a flourishing phantasy coupled with still little real world experience, we often develop conspiracy theories of evil conglomerates destroying great companies. This is reflected in the American tradition of siding with the underdog and buying goods from the second largest company.

When we grow up and start a job, maybe at one of these great companies later being killed off, we learn that the reality is not that nefarious. In general, it is not the conglomerate killing the great gentle white knight competitor, but it is the white knight company committing suicide by wreaking havoc on itself. It is not the bad conglomerate stealing the great company's customer, it is the great company annoying and chasing away its customers, ending up in a downward spiral.

How is this related to color science?

Before laptop computers were commercialized, there was only one way to give a demo at a conference: show a video taped in the lab. In the past, all research labs had well equipped video facilities and many tapes were produced at great effort.

When we resurrected this blog, we also created a MostlyColor account on YouTube, with the intention of posting some of the videos from the pioneering days of digital color printing. However, this is a time consuming task, because we cannot just get a combo VHS-DVD recorder to transfer the videos. Since the tapes are poor copies and not original U-Matic masters, a professional tape cassette player with adjustable scan and tracking is required, and the video then has to be edited down to the maximum duration allowed by YouTube.

Therefore, this task just languished on our to-do list. Until a couple of weeks ago, when two concomitant events occurred. On one side a manager here mentioned it would be useful to look at how a technology being considered now had been predicted 25 years ago, and on the other side our friend at Google Books sent an email informing us that PARC is conserving and digitizing only the most relevant pieces in their video library.

Our video digitization project suddenly moved up on the to-do list and became a job to perform during the Thanksgivings break. I was able to find a semi-professional VHS player with manual tracking and scan control and inserted a cassette. The capstan was still in mint condition and the image quality acceptable.

However, the player was too weak to eject the cassette. I thought this is not a big deal, just part of natural aging, and given the player is built of discrete parts, it should be easy to get the belts and springs replaced. The manufacturer concurred and provided an "Event ID" which put the device on the next FedEx flight to Laredo in Texas, where the manufacturer's repair center for North America is located.

And this is where the initial enthusiasm comes to a bitter end. The Event ID never appears in the tracking system. A week later the box comes back unopened via FedEx Ground.

A call to the repair center is rerouted to the global call center in Manila in the Philippines, where after almost an hour on hold a courteous agent apologizes and shrugs that the Laredo center has not been responding this week. In fact, looking up the phone number in Laredo and calling it, just gets me transferred back again to Manila.

So, while this company is chasing away its customers and spiraling into death, I would still like to digitize the color research videos. Do you know of an independent repair service that would be able to overhaul an old Sony cassette video player? It should be at a reasonable driving distance from the intergalactic headquarters of MostlyColor in Palo Alto.

Please post your recommendation in the comments, as others might have devices to service.