Polaroid Camera

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Early Years

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Edwin Land and the First Synthetic Sheet Polarizer (Save Polaroid)

The story of the Polaroid camera begins with its founder and innovator, physicist Dr. Edwin Land, who came to the forefront of photographic technology in 1929 when he created the first synthetic sheet polarizer; thus solving "one of science’s long-standing 'unsolvable' problems – polarizing light without needing a large crystal of an esoteric mineral" (Save Polaroid). This technology enabled not only the development of the Polaroid camera but sunglasses, 3-D glasses, glare-reducing glass and windows, and many other products as well.

In 1937, Dr. Land presented his plastic polarizer as a possible material to reduce headlight glare to a group of Wall Street investors(Blout 40). After an investment from Kuh, Loeb and Co., of $350,000, Land was able to form the Polaroid Corporation that same year, allowing them to begin to manufacture, develop and market these large-area plastic polarizers (40).

During the war years, Polaroid turned all its focus on the war effort, manufacturing "optical plastics for military range finders", a "new type of heat homing 'smart bomb'", as well as vectographs, which Elkan Blout, a former Polaroid employee describes as "a system using polarized images to visualize objects three- dimensionally.(40)"

In essence, these early years were defined by Land's work. "Polaroid's early years," Blout notes, "were Land's early years; the company exemplified the characteristics of the man -- inventiveness, determination, hard work, ability to communicate (39)." Land was not only the corporate manager, he too was the inventor, innovator and researcher (47).

The idea of an instant camera, which would eventually become entirely responsible for the Polaroid Corporation's revenue, wasn’t envisioned by Dr. Land until 1943 in response to his 3-year-old daughter’s confusion as to why a camera could not instantly produce pictures. The story is told that Land's daughter asked her father (who was in the process of taking taking family pictures), “Why can’t I see them now?” (Pace). The question intrigued Dr. Land and set him on the quest to solve the 'problem' of instant photography.

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Edwin Land, Founder of Polaroid (New York Times)

In 1947 the concept of instant photography was presented to The Optical Society in New York City and shortly after, in November of 1948 (Blout 43), instant photography became available to the public with the introduction of the Polaroid Model 95 Camera (also referred to as the Polaroid Land Camera) and Type 40 film . The Polaroid Land Camera was welcomed and widely accepted by consumer markets – even with a $95 price-tag (approximately $850 today) the camera flew off shelves and sold out in a matter of weeks. The demand for the new camera was so great that backorders began being taken and consumers started to pay up to $150 (approximately $1350 today) for the new instant photography device (Save Polaroid).

A long line of instant photography developments and products proceeded the Polaroid Land Camera’s release and by the 1960’s approximately fifty-percent of American households owned a Polaroid camera (Pace).

VIDEO - Invention: The First Polaroid Camera (Discovery Channel)

The SX-70

Released in 1972, the SX-70 Land camera represented a completely revolutionary leap for Polaroid in the field of instant film photography. According to N. Trotman of Afterimage Magazine, unlike previous models of Polaroids which printed with peel- apart layers, the SX-70 transformed "the photography into a unitary, sealed packet containing negative, positive and processing chemicals" (Trotman). Additionally, the SX-70 came with a "custom motor battery system to eject the print, which developed in direct sunlight before the user's eyes" (Trotman). The later models that would follow the SX- 70 would build upon the successes of the SX-70, but they also "improved film speed along withe exposure control and added automatic focus systems" (Trotman). These included the Prontol (1976), One Step (1977), 600 Sun (1981), and Spectra (1986).

Noteworthy Dates of Several Polaroid Models

Polaroid Model 95 Camera (Save Polaroid)

1948: The first Polaroid Land Camera, a Model 95, is sold at Boston’s Jordan Marsh department store.

1957: Polaroid camera sales reach over 50 million (Blout 45)

1960: Polaroid camera sales reach almost 100 million/year (46)

1963: Polaroid color film is now widely sold

1964: The five-millionth Polaroid Land Camera, an Automatic 100, is manufactured.

1971: The Big Shot Land Camera, designed to take flash color portraits, debuts.

1972: The SX-70 system is introduced (see section SX-70). The camera is fully automatic, motorized, folding, single-lens reflex which ejects self developing, self-timing color prints.

Polaroid OneStep Camera (Amazon)

1976: Sales of Polaroid cameras exceed six million units.

1977: The OneStep Land Camera is the best-selling camera in the U.S. for more than four years. This year Polaroid sales exceed $1 billion.

1986: The Spectra debuts at Jordan Marsh in Boston.

1998: The OneStep is the world’s best-selling camera.

1999: 9.7 million instant cameras are sold. The iZone Pocket Camera and "sticker" film are introduced.

2004: Polaroid introduces a new line of six instant cameras (Naples Daily News).

What makes the Polaroid Camera special?

How a Polaroid Camera Works

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"Instant camera film has the entire developing process arranged in chemical layers. When the reagent enters above the light sensitive layers, it gets the process going" (HowStuffWorks).
The film used in the Polaroid camera is quite similar to the film used in regular cameras (with the exception of a few extra elements). The difference is that the film has "its own built-in developing studio" (HowStuffWorks). Although the Polaroid camera developing process combines colors in the same basic way as slide film, what makes it unique is that the developing chemicals are already present in the film itself (HowStuffWorks).

How to Take a Picture

Step 1 Purchase the Polaroid film specified for use with your Polaroid camera model.

Step 2 Load film into your Polaroid camera (instructions vary depending on the Polaroid camera model.

Step 3 Although the Polaroid camera automatically adjusts focus, getting closer than 18 inches from the subject will cause the photograph to blur.

Step 4 Choose the exposure control feature you want in order to customize your image quality - a longer exposure time is best for use in areas with low light while a shorter exposure time is best for use in areas with bright light.

Step 5 If your Polaroid camera has extra features (i.e., a self-timer) you should adjust these settings to your preference now.

Step 6 Take your picture - your photograph will be produced in under 60 seconds (eHow).


Ultimately, what makes a Polaroid photograph unique is its combination of its immediate and its material nature. You are not simply producing an instant image, but also an instant physical object. Many theorists have argued, in act, that the emergence of the Polaroid required its own set of phenomenology from that of traditional photography due to these distinctive qualities.

In a discussion of using a Polaroid at a party, Trotman argues that

<blockquote> “Taking a Polaroid is an event unto itself, contained within the party atmosphere. The partygoer holds the photo-object in his or her hand like a strong drink, taking it in as the image forms. At the moment that the development ceases, the picture does not commemorate the past party, but participates in the party as it occurs. It circulates through the festivity, inspiring others to take their own snapshots, visualizing reality as it takes place, condensing time into a continuous present." (Trotman)</blockquote>

The physicality of the Polaroid photo, combined with ability to produce it almost instantly, transforms it from merely a photograph, into a sort of instant source of entertainment, amusement and play. The photo is not solely significant as an artifact, or physical proof of a past moment. The Polaroid photograph is an object to be appreciated in its own materiality, in the present.


Practical uses of a Polaroid camera

The introduction of the Polaroid instant camera created a sensation among regular camera users. The obvious immediate application for “instant pictures” was at family gatherings (i.e., birthdays, holidays, etc.) since it allowed people to see the photos right away and, if necessary, reshoot the picture. But an entire market emerged for other applications as well. For example, many professions and services benefitted from the ability to create near “instant” photographs – DMV’s, Post Offices, and other institutions (business, schools, etc.) used them to quickly snap photos for driver’s licenses, passports, and ID cards.

Doctor’s and hospitals began using them to document visible injuries their patients may have had and some even began to use them for “before and after” reference (this was particularly common in dermatology). However, the Polaroid camera was most commonly used in the medical field to take pictures of ultrasounds (in order to provide parents-to-be with their own photograph copy).

Law enforcement was another professional that took advantage of the Polaroid camera’s ability to take instant photos – often police officers and crime scene investigators used Polaroid Cameras because of their ability to create immediate, unalterable, photographs (crucial in mug-shots or the documentation of evidence from a homicide).

Polaroid in Art and Popular Culture

Over its 60 years as a popular form of photography, the Polaroid camera has been a favorite of artists, filmmakers and even songwriters. An exhibition in October 2009 brought together a collection of visual arts pieces which all utilized Polaroid photographs. These ranged from works by Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki to fashion photography Guy Bourdin and filmmaker Wim Wenders. The exhibit also included pieces by major modern artists including David Hockney's Joiners series, which collages many Polaroid images together to build a "fly-eye compound image", Michael Snow's 1969 piece Authorization, and a variety of pieces by Andy Warhol, a lover of the Polaroid (Barrett).

Beyond the visual arts, the Polaroid has been featured in countless films, including the French film hit Amelie

[1] (YouTube, clip from Amelie, Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)]

Polaroids were also brought back into popular lexicon with the hip-hop group Outkast's smash-hit "Hey-Ya" which included the repeated lyric: "Shake it like a Polaroid picture."

[2] (YouTube, music video for "Hey Ya", Outkast).


Kodak Lawsuit

On October 6, 1981, in a court battle over the invention of the instant camera, the Polaroid Corporation accused the Eastman Kodak Company of "violating its patents in a way that 'strikes at the very heart of Polaroid's business'" (The New York Times). Polaroid claimed that Kodak illegally copied their technology and "entered Polaroid's exclusive field" with their 1976 introduction of an "instant color camera" (The New York Times). According to Polaroid's lawyer, William K. Kerr, "Kodak unsuccessfully tried to develop non-infringing methods...[b]ut they bumped against stone walls and eventually were driven to infringe upon Polaroid's patents" (New York Times). This patent infringement, he added, 'strikes at the very heart of Polaroid's business,' whereas instant photography represents 'only a very small part of Kodak's overall business'" (The New York Times).

In 1985 Kodak was found guilty of infringing on seven of Polaroid's instant photography patents and was forced to stop producing devices that allowed for instant photography. However, the question of how much economic damage Polaroid had suffered was still unanswered (Holusha). The Polaroid Corporation claimed that Kodak's development and production of instant photography devices and products caused Polaroid to lose $4 billion in profits. And, in a further claim that Kodak "willfully stole its technology," Polaroid asked to receive damages of $12 billion (Holusha).

On October 12 1990, "in the largest award ever in a patent-infringement case, a Federal judge ruled...that the Eastman Kodak Company must pay the Polaroid Corporation $909.4 million for infringing Polaroid's patents for instant photography" (Holusha). Unfortunately for Polaroid, "the decision represents something of a victory for Kodak, since it is well below the $12 billion sought by Polaroid and the $1.5 to $2 billion that some financial analysts had expected" (Holusha).


"There was a time when there was nothing to beat a Polaroid camera for instant gratification. But in a world of disposable cameras, one-hour film processing and the camcorder, Polaroid's...sales [suffered]" (Smith).

The 1980s and 1990s were not a strong time for Polaroid as their sales and earnings were essentially flat (Blout 52). Some argued, however, that it wasn't due to the emergence of other more progressive photographic technology but rather due to poor marketing on Polaroid's behalf. Many claimed that the company was simply marketing it in the same category as "documentary" or "recording" devices when it should have been marketed as a "social enhancement device." For example, Martin Smith, BBH's deputy chairman, is cited as saying that "Polaroid operate[d] in a different market from 35mm cameras and advanced photography systems. Rather than recording the event, it add[ed] to it, and help[ed] it to become more informal. It [was] less about memories [and] more like alcohol and karaoke" (Smith). As a result, some scholars suggest that if Polaroid had marketed itself as more of a fun-enhancing gadget and less like a traditional camera, sales would have improved.

Digital Photography

Regardless of poor marketing, there was one force which Polaroid could not ignore: digitization. With the creation of digital photography, and the increasing popularity of photo viewing and sharing via the computer and Internet, most of Polaroid's consumer base has left the Polaroid behind for the even more instant device, the digital camera. Even business applications that so commonly used the Polaroid camera have switched entirely to the digital camera. Almost all Post Offices, DMV's and other institutions are now using digital cameras to take photographs for passports, driver's licenses and ID cards. Even professional photographers who often used the Polaroid camera to preview lighting before taking an expensive photograph are switching to digital cameras- not only because the digital camera provides an instant visual of the photo without more than a moment of waiting time (via a screen on the back of the camera) but also because digital cameras allow almost near instant access to a large, high-def, visual of the image if attached to a computer. Finally, the most obvious benefit of digitization: cost. Digital cameras don't require film, so once you've purchased the device, your costs are almost non-existent.

The popularity of viewing images on screens didn't just impact how consumers were previewing and sharing images but also how they were storing and saving images. Over the past several years it has become more and more common (especially among younger generations) to not keep a hard copy of photographs. The days of photo albums and prints are disappearing and being replaced by online photo-sharing websites such as Facebook and Flickr, camera-phones, and iPhoto. Many consumers find that higher definition images, the ability to edit, and the ability to instantly share (either via email, a website, or cellphone) a photograph, with a near infinite number of people, is far superior to a small, unalterable, physical copy.

Bankruptcy and the Petters Group Purchase

On October 12, 2001 the Polaroid Corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. “The news did not shock Wall Street, where analysts…watched the company's stock sink and debts soar as digital cameras hurt Polaroid's core instant photography business…Its stock, which approached $50 in early 1998, was selling for 28 cents...In its filing, the company listed $1.81 billion in assets and $948.4 million in debts” (Deutsch).

The Polaroid instant camera was the basis for founding the Polaroid Corporation and drove the company’s profits for decades. Unfortunately, it was Polaroid’s large reliance on the instant camera – “a vicious cycle of constantly putting all the eggs in one basket” – that ultimately led to the company’s financial failure (Deutsch).

In 2005 Polaroid was bought by Petters Group Worldwide (a private investment company) for approximately $426 million (Naples Daily News). In 2007, under the ownership of the Petters Group, The Polaroid Company ceased their production of instant cameras for commercial and consumer use. The following year Polaroid announced that they would cease to produce and manufacture instant film by 2009.

The Impossible Project

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Image from The Impossible Project, Factory Tour (Impossible Project)
In 2009, an organization called the Impossible project took on a 10-year lease of the old Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, with the hope of reproducing film for the slew of Polaroid cameras still in circulation (Barrett). The mission of the Impossible Project, officially launched in October 2008 by Florian Kaps (CMO), Andre Bosman (COO) and Marwan Saba (CFO) is, however, "not to re-build Polaroid film, but to develop a new product with new characteristics as well as to support and promote analog Instant Photography amongst artists and photographers" (The Impossible Project, Press Release). In other words, while they did see themselves as responsible for the future of instant photography, they also hope to enhance the technology in new and interesting ways. The Impossible Project still continues to manufacture film for Polaroid Cameras to this day.

Polaroid under the Petters Corporation

In the meantime, the new Polaroid corporation (owned and operated by the Petters Group) attempted to find its voice in the digital photography world - this time with photos taken by digital cameras and camera phones. During the third quarter of 2008 the Polaroid Corporation partnered with Zink to create and market the Polaroid PoGo Instant Mobile Printer – a small, portable, battery-powered printer from the company that was built on Edwin Land's Polaroid (Eisenberg).

<blockquote> “Polaroid PoGo™ - short for Polaroid-on-the-go - is a pocket-sized, ink-free digital photo printer that produces full-color photos wirelessly from Bluetooth-enabled cell phones and via PictBridge from digital cameras. Weighing only eight ounces, Polaroid PoGo™ provides consumers with a convenient solution for sharing digital images trapped on cell phones and digital cameras. Connecting via Bluetooth or PictBridge, Polaroid PoGo™ uses a revolutionary ZINK Zero Ink Zero Hassles™ Printing Technology to produce borderless, full-color, 2-inch by 3-inch prints in less than 60 seconds” (ZINK).</blockquote>

Zink Enabeled Polaroid PoGo (Polaroid)

The 2008 Polaroid PoGo printer connected to cell phones wirelessly via Bluetooth technology and to digital cameras via a cable. The 2008 PoGo was unique in that it didn't use cartridges or toner (because it doesn’t use ink). “Instead, there is a computer chip, a 2-inch-long thermal printhead and a novel kind of paper embedded with microscopic layers of dye crystals that can create a multitude of colors when heated” (Eisenberg).

“When the image file is beamed from the camera to the printer, a program translates pixel information into heat information. Then, as the paper passes under the printhead, the heat activates the colors within the paper and forms crisp images” (Eisenberg).

The unique paper was created by former Polaroid employees and conceptualized at Polaroid. However, after Polaroid filed bankruptcy in 2001 the employees founded the company ZINK Imaging in 2005 where the product was able to be developed and made available to buyers (Eisenberg).

As of 2010, the PoGo has been transformed from simply a portable printer into digital camera with a built in printing capacities (Polaroid CZA-05300: Polaroid PoGo Instant Digital Camera). Clearly, the original PoGo; not quite a digital camera, and not quite a traditional Polaroid, failed to find the niche market they hoped it would.

Polaroid in 2010 and into the future

In 2010, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy again, this time due to a multi- billion dollar Ponzi scheme at parent company Petters Group (Burns). Polaroid's name and assets have now been acquired by private equity film Hilco Consumer Capital and liquidator Gordon Brothers Group (Burns) for 67 million US dollars (Kirby). When purchased, the company which had once employed 21,000 workers, employed only 70 people.

On June 30, 2010 at the MIT Museum, Polaroid, under it's new ownership, celebrated its history and introduced its plans for the future. This event included an addition to the museum: an image of their new Creative Director, performer Lady Gaga. The appointment of Lady Gaga, Polaroid argues, is simply continuing their tradition of drawing inspiration from "the creative community" ("Polaroid at MIT"). More likely, the addition of Lady Gaga as their Creative Director is part of the new leadership's attempt to relaunch the brand as young, hip, and current- the antithesis of what the brand had come to represent in the past decade.

While the company is still interested in cracking the digital market, they are also revisiting analog photography and plan on re-releasing some of their classic cameras. Interestingly, rather than manufacture their own film, Polaroid hopes to help distribute the film currently being produced by The Impossible Project to run with their re-released cameras, a fascinating instance of grassroots-corporate teamwork (Kirby).

The new Polaroid seems to believe that the resurgence amongst youth for tangible items, in other terms, "things you can hold and touch," such as vinyl records, will encourage an interest in the Polaroid camera once more (Kirby). The past 5 years have also revealed the popularity of Lomography as an artform, and an interest in film-based cameras as a new means of creative expression. In this age of digitization and the move from the material to the digital, there is hope at Polaroid that there will be some kind of return to physical objects, and to the joy of the instant, material photograph. As one of the founders of the Save Polaroid movement, Dave Bias asserts, "the thing on the paper is a tangible artifact of the moment in time. Good or bad, right or wrong, it's what you created. These tangible things have gained in value" (Kirby).

Works Cited

Amazon. Image: Polaroid OneStep Camera. Amazon. 25 Oct. 2008. <http://www.amazon.com/Polaroid-One-Step-600-Instant-Camera/dp/B00004RFC5>.

Barrett, David."Reviews: Exhibitions". Art Monthly. London: Nov 2009. , Iss.  331;  pg. 20, 2 pgs

Blout, Elkan. "Polaroid: Dreams to Reality". Daedalus, Vol. 125, No. 2, Managing Innovation (Spring, 1996), pp. 39-53 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20013438>

Burns, Charlotte. "Polaroid row hots up." Art Newspaper 19 (2010): 65. OmniFile Full Text Mega. Web. 22 Sep. 2010.

Deutsch, Claudia H. "Deep in Dept Since 1988, Polaroid Files for Bankruptcy." The New York Times. 13 Oct. 2001. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A00E0D8123FF930A25753C1A9679C8B63&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/Subjects/C/Credit>.

Discovery Channel. Video: Invention: The First Polaroid Camera. Discovery Channel. 25 Oct. 2008 <http://videos.howstuffworks.com/discovery/29594-invention-the-first-polaroid-camera-video.htm>.

eHow. "How to Use a Polaroid Camera." eHow. 26 Oct. 2008. <http://www.ehow.com/how_2075800_use-polaroid-camera.html>.

Eisenberg, Anne. Image: Edwin Land, Founder of Polaroid. The New York Times. 13 April 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/technology/13novel.html?scp=30&sq=polaroid%20camera&st=cse>.

Eisenberg, Anne. “Instant Digital Prints (and Polaroid Nostalgia).” The New York Times. 13 April 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/technology/13novel.html?scp=30&sq=polaroid%20camera&st=cse>.

Holusha, John. “Kodak Told It Must Pay $909 Million.” The New York Times. 13 Oct.1990. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0CE6D91F39F930A25753C1A966958260&sec=&spon=&&scp=4&sq=polaroid%20kodak%2suit&st=cse>.

HowStuffWorks. "How Instant Film Works" HowStuffWorks. 26 Oct. 2008. <http://science.howstuffworks.com/instant-film.htm>.

HowStuffWorks. Image: Instant Camera Film. HowStuffWorks. 25 Oct. 2008. <http://www.howstuffworks.com/question605.htm>.

Kirby, J. Polaroid: The revival. Canadian Business v. 83 no. 1 (January 19-February 15 2010) p. 20

Lyons, Patrick J. “Polaroid Abandons Instant Photography.” The New York Times. 8 Feb. 2008. <http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/08/polaroid-abandons-instant-photography/?hp>.

Naples Daily News. "The Polaroid Project: The Timeline." Naples Daily News. 20 April 2008. <http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2008/Apr/20/polaroid-project-timeline/>.

Pace, Eric. “Edwin H. Land Is Dead at 81; Inventor of Polaroid Camera.” The New York Times. March 2 1991. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE6D8133AF931A35750C0A967958260>.

Polaroid. "Polaroid CZA-05300: Polaroid Instant Digital Camera". 22 September 2010. <http://www.polaroid.com/product/0/266909/CZA-05300/_/CZA-05300%3A_Polaroid_PoGo%26%238482%3B_Instant_Digital_Camera>

Polaroid. "Polaroid at MIT." 22 Sept. 2010. <http://www.polaroid.com/About/Polaroid+at+MIT/Polaroid+at+MIT/4434>

Polaroid. Image: Zink Enabled Polaroid PoGo. 25 Oct. 2008. <http://www.polaroid.com/us/index.jsp?co=usbmLocale=en_US>.

Save Polaroid. “A History of Polaroid.” Save Polaroid. 23 Oct. 2008. <http://www.savepolaroid.com/history>.

Save Polaroid. Image: Edwin Land and the First Synthetic Sheet Polarizer. Save Polaroid. 23 Oct. 2008. <http://www.savepolaroid.com/history>.

Save Polaroid. Image: Polaroid Model 95 Camera. Save Polaroid. 23 Oct. 2008. <http://www.savepolaroid.com/history>.

Smith, Allison. “Having a Party with Your Polaroid Camera – Marketing Brand Management.” F.T. Business Enterprises Limited. 26 May 1998. ProQuest. NYU. 20 Oct. 2008. <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?did=29683432&Fmt=7&clientId=9148&RQT=309&VName=PQD>.

The New York Times. “Polaroid Says Kodak’s Entry In to Instant Photos Injured It.” The New York Times. 6 Oct. 1981. <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F03E5DF1239F935A35753C1A967948260&scp=9&sq=instant20camera%20polaroid&st=cse>.

Trotman, N. "The Life of the Party". Afterimage v. 29 no. 6 (May/June 2002) p. 10

Youtube. Clip from Amelie. Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. 22 September 2010 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiU_SYV5W70&feature=related>

Youtube. Music Video for "Hey Ya". Outkast. Dir. Bryan Barber. 22 September 2010 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWgvGjAhvIw&ob=av2e>

ZINK (Zero Ink). Image: PoGo and Bluetooth Technology. ZINK. 22 Oct. 2008. <http://www.zink.com/partner-products>.

ZINK (Zero Ink). “Partner Products.” ZINK. 22 Oct. 2008. <http://www.zink.com/partner-products>.