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Fortunes flip for hand-held video

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

(Photo)
Even Oprah couldn't save the Flip Video.

The days of the portable, handheld video camera, which we at the Times-Gazette have been using for some time to make videos for our web site, are numbered.

I still remember when the newspaper got its first Flip. I and two of my co-workers were so impressed with the little gadget that we ended up buying our own within just a few weeks. Handheld, deliberately idiot-proof, it could be worn in a holster or stuffed into a pocket or backpack or purse. Unlike old video cameras, which you had to think about bringing somewhere, you could have the Flip with you constantly. Video became something, not for special occasions, but for whenever you felt like it, whenever life happened.

The camera was inexpensive, compared to a full-functioned camcorder, but it wasn't just for cheapskates. Oprah Winfrey included the Flip on one of her annual "favorite things" lists, the kind of publicity for which any manufcaturer would kill. Companies like Kodak entered the market with cameras of the same basic size -- but they couldn't resist adding extra features, and Flip continued to stand alone in its simple-is-best approach.

The Flip had its limits compared to a full-featured camcorder, some of them due to the company's insistence that the camera be as simple and idiot-proof as humanly possible. There is no way to plug in an external microphone, and the built-in microphone didn't do a great job. When editing videos for the T-G web site, I always have to pump up the volume.

The camera has a "zoom" feature, but it's what in still cameras is known as digital zoom -- accomplished by software rather than lenses. That means that as soon as you start zooming the picture starts getting grainier. I advised co-workers to completely ignore the zoom feature and just move closer to their subject if possible.

The camera comes with pre-loaded software for saving videos to your computer, and for very, very basic, no-frills editing. (You can edit clips together yourself or, for things like a birthday party where narrative is secondary, you can just let the software stitch clips together randomly.) I sometimes used the Flip software for editing personal projects, but it's very, very basic. I use iMovie on our newsroom Macs, or Windows Live Movie Maker on my home computer, for editing the clips you see at the T-G web site.

As soon as you plug the camera into a new computer's USB port, the software installs itself on the computer, trouble-free. If there's a new version of the software, the computer downloads it and installs it on the camera, trouble-free.

PureDigital, which created the Flip, was eventually bought by the networking company Cisco Systems. It seemed an odd fit, but reportedly Cisco used some of Flip's idiot-proof designers to help create its simplified wireless home networking product, Valet.

Then, last week, Cisco announced that it was going to focus on its core businesses and would be shutting down the Flip Video division -- not selling it or spinning it off, but just shutting it down. Boom.

The trouble, of course, is mobile phones, and soon tablets. As the built-in cameras on phones and tablets get better and better, fewer people are interested in carrying around a second device.

The camera on my current cell phone is nowhere as good as the camera on my Flip Ultra HD, so I'm going to continue to use my Flip at least until my next smartphone. But it's only a matter of time before most people carry phones and/or tablets with picture quality in the same league as the Flip -- and even in cases where it's not quite as good, a smartphone-camera combination is much more convenient if you want to immediately upload your video to Facebook or YouTube or TwitVid. At the time Cisco bought Flip, the company hinted that a model might be produced allowing wireless uploads from your camera to your computer, but that never happened.

Now, Cisco clearly sees the handwriting on the wall, and -- in a bad economy, with other problems to worry about -- it has decided not to pour any more money into a product with no long-term prospects. Cisco will continue to maintain the video-sharing web site which ties in with the Flip software, but beyond that they're shutting down the product.

I understand it; it makes perfect sense. But it still makes me a little sad. I'm on my second Flip, and I've carried it around the world with me. The Flip has only been around a few years, but its departure somehow feels like the end of an era.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.



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John I. Carney
Loose Talk / Charge Complete
John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.