ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Aside from computer and photo hobbyists, are there enough ordinary folks willing to fork out an extra $9 a roll for the novelty of having a photofinishing store computerize their traditional snapshots?
That's the key question Eastman Kodak Co. faces as it puts the finishing touches on its new product in its effort to profit from digital photography.
Using Picture CD, amateur shutterbugs will be able to have their photos stored on CD-ROM. In a few weeks, Picture CDs will begin popping up at national chains such as Kmart Corp., Walgreen Co., CVS Corp. and Target Stores. By this summer, they will be available at more than 40,000 retail stores nationwide.
Kodak developed the Picture CD along with computer chip giant Intel Corp. as part of a drive to expand mainstream photography to the Internet. The Picture CD uses software by Adobe Systems Inc.
In recent test-markets in Indianapolis and Salt Lake City, Kodak said the compact discs were bought by about 5 percent of consumers -- a higher percentage than expected.
"I would be really surprised if this doesn't take off," said Audrey Debije, 29, a college instructor who was picking up film at a Moto Photo store in Kodak's hometown on Tuesday.
"It could be a real benefit when members of families live clear across the country from each other and you don't see each other that often."
Another customer, Karl Neubauer, doesn't anticipate much demand among "average Americans" for a few more years, at least until costs come down.
"Already, developing film can be expensive, so I think it's going to take a while before CDs are widely used," said Neubauer, a sculptor. "I like photos to be tangible. Not that I'm a technophobe, but in a way I'd like to keep it simple."
At least initially, traditional prints, which cost roughly $5 to $8 per roll, must be purchased along with CDs. The CD orders take about two days to fill.
The CDs are simpler to use than the floppy disks that Kodak and other photo companies now sell, which require consumers to load their own software onto their computer. While the CDs are slightly more expensive, their images are sharper.
Photos on CD could be stored in digital albums, manipulated to adjust color, clarity and brightness, or dropped into newsletters and personalized birthday cards.
The photography industry is pushing hard to get consumers interested in digital products but, for many, the technology remains an untried novelty. Kodak has yet to turn a profit from its digital business, which racked up $702 million in losses in 1997 and 1998.
Kodak's core business of amateur film, photographic paper and traditional cameras generates half its profits, but this cash cow is being threatened by intense competition from Japan. However, the slowly growing market for digital products could pose a much bigger threat to future growth.
This summer, Kodak also expects to begin offering America Online subscribers the option of having digitized copies of their photos delivered to their computer by photofinishing stores for an extra $5 to $7 a roll.