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Polaroid shoots for digital printing

PC World

By Stacy Cowley

(IDG) -- Looking ahead to the next frontier, Polaroid is focusing on the instant printing of digital photos. On Thursday, the company unveiled a pair of new digital printing platforms, code-named "Onyx" and "Opal," which are intended to increase the quality and lower the cost of rapidly printed digital images.

Opal generates color printouts; Onyx develops monochrome and black-and-white images. The systems utilize specially coated paper and a thermal process. Unlike traditional Polaroid instant photos, printouts created with Onyx and Opal require no drying time.

Polaroid plans to work with a wide array of third-party hardware manufacturers to extend Opal and Onyx to a diverse mix of devices, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gary DiCamillo says. Consumers will be able to purchase home printers capable of generating finished 4-by-6 images in less than 30 seconds; commercial printers will be able to create 50 to 60 images per minute, according to Polaroid.

Other devices in the works include portable printers that will attach to mobile phones and handheld computers, cameras with built-in instant digital printers, and an assortment of teen-focused toys for printing stickers and temporary tattoos. Polaroid also hopes to introduce Opal and Onyx to corporate and academic markets. INFOCENTER
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Details on when consumers will see tangible results of the Opal and Onyx initiatives are vague, however, as is pricing information. DiCamillo says final pricing will vary by product, and depend heavily on the involved hardware partners. He did say that Polaroid expects the systems' pricing to be "very competitive" with rival technologies, including ink jet printing.

Devices incorporating Onyx will hit the market by the end of 2001, DiCamillo says, and Opal devices will be available in 2002. He declines to disclose a more precise timeline. He also declines to name any of Polaroid's hardware partners, other than to say that the company has met with "lots" of interested parties, including mobile phone and PDA (personal digital assistant) manufacturers.

DiCamillo terms the new systems' speed and quality a "game changer." Polaroid needs one: The company's sales skidded into a wall in the third quarter of 2000, and it posted a $38 million operating loss for the first quarter of 2001.

Polaroid is one of the top digital camera manufacturers in the United States--last year it sold 1.3 million units--but that business isn't an attractive one, DiCamillo says.

"Selling digital cameras is not a very profitable business. It looks like the PC business, like the consumer electronics business," he says, citing two sectors struggling with low margins and price warfare. "You have to use it as a bridging mechanism."

International Data Corporation analyst Chris Chute doubts that Opal and Onyx will spark the revolution among consumers that Polaroid envisions. The products would be sensational "if they existed in a vacuum," he says. "It's going to be kind of touch-and-go. They really haven't done much partnering before in this arena."

Chute predicts that Opal in particular is several years away from maturity--and by the time it's a competitive system, "you're going to see so many products in that space that Polaroid entering the market is not going to be a new thing," he says.

"The technology itself (behind Opal and Onyx) is great," Chute says. "Whether it can deliver is beyond the technology. It's up to Polaroid as a business."


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