The Flip is dead, long live portable video

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As has been widely reported, in a cost-cutting move Cisco has determined to set its Flip pocket-camcorder division adrift. No, correct that, much as it pains me to say so, “set adrift” implies that there’s some possibility that—despite low rations, little water, and floating some 2,000 miles from the nearest land mass—a Divine Presence may rescue the Flip line of camcorders from its watery fate and lay it, ever so gently, in more nurturing hands.

And that just isn’t going to happen. And it won’t for these reasons:

The blinding utility

Cisco reportedly acquired Pure Digital, the original developers of the Flip camcorders, for nearly $600 million in 2009. $600 million, paid by a company best known for corporate networking solutions. What on earth were they thinking!?

To explain how something like this could happen, allow me to cite this personal example. When I laid hands on my first Flip video camera, I was bowled over. That Flip camcorder cost less than $125, fit easily into my pocket, shot darned good standard-definition video, and could be operated by a modestly dexterous corpse. In an age where people were just starting to document every burp and tickle on YouTube, an inexpensive and ultra-convenient pocket camcorder—one that could be custom skinned to boot—seemed like a natural.

I was so enthralled with the Flip that I proposed writing a book about the thing. For those of you who haven’t pitched a book before, allow me to offer this insightful tidbit: Publishers are a practical bunch. If some reasonable profit from your sweat and toil isn’t in the cards, you can expect a reply that begins “Thank you for your interest, however….” And despite my enthusiasm for the device (and this class of products) that’s exactly the response I expected from my publisher. I mean honestly, who needs a book about a device that’s almost entirely operated with the press of a single Big Red Button?

And yet, my publisher bit. And they did because the person in charge of waggling the decisive thumb up or down acquired a Flip camcorder of his own. And, like me, he fell in love with it. (To be fair, also like me, he found the Flip and its ilk so attractive that he thought there might be a future in this pocket video business. Also, to be not-quite-so-fair, my Flip Mino Pocket Guide actually has some solid information on producing consumer videos.)

From that experience I have to think that some person in a similar position at Cisco (with a much larger and more powerful thumb, naturally) acquired his own Flip camcorder and, in an unguarded moment, thought, “Hot Diggity! This is the next frickin’ iPod!”

In hindsight, it’s easy to scoff at this notion, but consider that Apple took the Flip seriously enough that when Steve Jobs announced the video-camera-equipped fifth-generation iPod nano, he compared it directly to a Flip camcorder, saying “This market’s really exploding, and we want to get in on this.”

As it turns out, the 5G nano’s video camera was no great shakes, particularly when compared to a dedicated pocket camcorder. But the fact that the Flip could garner this kind of mention from Steve Jobs as well as possibly influence the design of Apple’s best-selling non-touch-based iPod, says something about the attractiveness of the device.

Can you really blame Cisco (or my publisher, for that matter) for thinking the Flip might be something important? Possibly.

When good enough is good enough

And you can because, honestly, most people aren’t very discerning.

Despite Pure Digital and Cisco’s efforts to make the Flip the kind of iconic device that transcends utility and becomes The Cool Object To Have (see iPod nano), there was this nagging point that wasn’t adequately addressed:

I have a point-and-shoot that takes movies. I also have a phone that can shoot video—crappy though it may be. Where does this device fit into my life?

Those who owned a Flip video camcorder or one of the many pocket camcorders released subsequently could confidently answer, “The Flip is much more portable than a point-and-shoot, shoots far better video than a phone, and is incredibly easy to operate. What’s not to like?

But that’s a geek response, from people who’ve used a product and actually thought about it. Regrettably, that’s precious little balm for those who respond, “Who cares? I’m just gonna post some YouTube movies of my frat brother blowing Pepsi out his nose.”

And there’s nothing at all wrong with that response. For this kind of device, that’s the target user—someone who wants to whip out a camera to record a spontaneous event. The problem is that this target user doesn’t really care that much about quality. Why drop more than a hundred bucks on a dedicated camcorder when the phone in your pocket is plenty good enough.

Couple that with the fact that phones are starting to shoot video that’s actually quite decent, and the need for a pocket camcorder becomes harder to justify.

Alley oop!

Finally, Cisco, unlike Apple, never figured out how to get people to buy The Next One. If you had a recent Flip MinoHD, what incentive did you have to buy this year’s model? Your camera already shot 720p HD video. It stored an hour of that video, which is plenty for the kind of shooting people use the camera for. And it couldn’t be easier to operate. For most people, the Flip they owned was perfect just as it was.

Cisco tried to entice customers to trade up by offering the Slide HD with its greater capacity, but its flip-up “widescreen” 3-inch display came off as a gimmick rather than something truly evolutionary. Who could blame observant consumers for thinking that Cisco had jumped the shark?

Despite appearances, I come to praise Flip rather than simply bury it. It was a respectable idea, nicely implemented. Yet it, like other single-purpose devices before it, fell victim to the dream-now-made-flesh—the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, and other convergence devices of their tantalizing ilk.

[Christopher Breen is a senior editor at Macworld.]

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