Flip Becomes a Flop

April 13th, 2011

I remember a few years ago when I got a press release about a neat miniature camcorder, the Flip, from a company known as Pure Digital. I quickly asked for a review sample. Sure enough, it was easy to use, took reasonably decent videos, and the software worked quite well with either a Mac or a PC. How could it miss?

Well, clearly Cisco felt the same, since they bought the company back in 2009, clearly feeling the investment was worth it, that Flip had assumed leadership in a fledgling market. Well, that is until smartphones took over.

Today’s iPhone delivers 720p high-definition video, same as the Flip. The iPad 2 incorporates a similar capability, at least for the rear camera. The recent iMovie upgrade from Apple means that you can easily take your raw footage and make it more professional, adding titles, transitions, and even mix audio into the package. If you don’t have a suitable set of background music, you can record your own in the iPad version of GarageBand. As usual, Apple’s superb software/hardware integration makes the entire process seamless.

Certainly most people who buy iPhones, and other smartphones with HD video camcorder capabilities, didn’t buy them for that purpose alone. Nor do they buy smartphones to take snapshots. But the features come along for the ride, so suddenly the need of a tiny camcorder (and a low-end digital camera for that matter) is seriously threatened. Why buy something that duplicates a function your present gadget collection can already handle?

Sure, I suppose the folks at Cisco’s Flip division would argue that their camcorder captures better videos, that their bundled software is superior to what you is being offered on your iPhone or iPad 2. But it still requires that you visit your Mac or PC to edit your videos. They couldn’t win.

Now just a few days ago, the folks at Cisco sent me one of the very latest Flips to review. Yes it has HD and represents the pinnacle of their product development cycle. Alas, it wasn’t good enough. This week Cisco announced that the division will be shuttered, leaving 550 employees searching for new jobs.

I suppose the failure of the Flip is understandable. Cheap camcorders are a niche of a niche as far as tech gear goes, and all-in-one mobile gadgets are supplanting their functions. Besides, even if the Flip does some things better than, say, an iPhone, being forced to lug along a second device on your travels is just plain inconvenient. It became a superfluous device. I expect cheap digital camera sales must be suffering too, at least to some extent, for similar reasons, particularly as smartphone cameras gain more megapixels and deliver higher picture quality. But understand, I do believe that quality cameras and camcorders will continue to exist and sell in decent qualitities for quite a while.

The Flip’s departure may also signal a trend, though one that certain consumer electronics makers aren’t going to like. You see, I’m reminded of the days when you had to buy separate audio components to get good quality sound. Sure, lots of folks bought those early integrated systems, in which a radio, amplifier, and in those days, a record changer, were embedded in a large piece of furniture, compete with a set of speakers. They didn’t sound great, but they got the job done, and they fit neatly into your living room decor.

Real audiophiles bought separate components, such as an amplifier, tuner, control center (preamplifier), etc. Some do today also, but most of you have receivers and even integrated home theater systems that sport separate speaker modules along with a control center of some sort that does all the rest. The better models sound quite good, and though I grant that separates may deliver more realistic audio, most are quite expensive. And, as one of the legendary audio magazine product reviewers asked long ago: “Does the difference make a difference?”

Today, convenience has supplanted the quest for perfection. More and more of you are willing to accept somewhat lower quality, in exchange for having a single gadget perform multiple functions. So you buy an all-in-one printer that also scans, copies, and faxes, rather than fill your desk with loads of extra machines. Sure, maybe a standalone scanner and copier will deliver higher quality results. A separate printer might deliver superior output.

When it comes to music, CDs are rapidly being replaced by the online digital equivalent; DVDs are gradually suffering from the same fate. When it comes to CDs, the iTunes download is not quite the equivalent, since the golden ears out there will rightly explain that there is an audible deterioration, unless you can get a “lossless” file. And don’t get me started about the digital versus vinyl argument. You like what you like, but the point of this argument is one of preferring convenience to quality.

Certainly the arrival of the iPad is leading the drive to simplify your PC-based digital lifestyle. You have a gadget weighing less than a pound and a half (with the iPad 2) that performs many of the functions that were formerly the province of the traditional PC. Even a smartphone can do much the same work, although limited by the size of the screen.

Besides, if you think that even the iPad’s display is just too tiny, take a look at the original compact Macs, or the first few generations of PowerBooks, along with the Windows-based equivalents. Yes, there will be a need for larger displays, physical keyboards and traditional input devices, such as a mouse or trackpad. But more and more of you will focus on that inevitable convenience and portability factor.

And that’s why the Flip became an endangered species.

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3 Responses to “Flip Becomes a Flop”

  1. Kaleberg says:

    If you want a larger display, use Airplay and watch on your big screen TV.

    Good post!

  2. Tom B says:

    I just don’t like MP3’s– the quality isn’t good enough. And managing physical CD’s is easier IMHO than fussing with files you have to back up. I hope CD’s continue to get pressed for the 50 or so more years I (semi-realistically) hope to achieve.

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