Flip Video: Can it help turn the tech industry on its ear?

By Ian Johnson,

Pocket video camera maker Pure Digital Technologies launched its latest Flip MinoHD and UltraHD models in Canada today, cameras the size of a chocolate bar that will shoot one to two hours (respectively) of 720p high-definition video. To me it's not the hardware that's the most interesting story here, though – it's how this small company out of San Francisco has been building and marketing consumer electronics.

The company's pint-sized point-and-shoot video cameras have been eating into the market share of traditional video camera makers, with well over 2 million of them selling in two years. And while they're popular with the stereotypical techies who have to have the latest gear, most are being bought by "average" consumers, from hockey moms to vacationing families.

I spoke recently to Scott Kabat, director of marketing for Pure Digital Technologies, about the mainstream appeal of the company's cameras. He didn't launch into the typical tech marketing spiel about "paradigm-shifting technology" or "market-leading platforms." He said flatly that Pure Digital's success is based simply on, well, simplicity. The company's design focus is only partly on the workings of the hardware – most of its efforts go into making the software and supporting services easy to use.

Keeping things simple sounds easy and it's something just about every tech company pays lip service to, yet few actually pull it off. They often start with good intentions, but the products end up being so complicated that most of their features are useless, like a VCR clock that's always blinking 12:00 because it's too much of a hassle to set.

With a Flip, press a button and point the camera, and you're recording. Plug the camera into a USB port on a PC or Mac (at home, at work or at grandma's place), and it launches built-in software that lets you view videos and do basic edits. No messing around with discs or downloading drivers, figuring out codecs or installing permanent software. The dead-simple menu screen isn't flashy, but it offers all the things most people will want to do with video clips – make basic edits, export videos to the computer's hard drive or burn them to a disc, display them on a website, e-mail them to friends or post them on various social networking sites.

Flip cameras aren't necessarily right for everyone, and there's definitely room for improvement when it comes to things like ergonomics and zooming ability. But the lesson here for the consumer electronics industry is that these gadgets are selling mainly because extra effort has gone into making them simple and convenient, and you won't need a manual to figure them out.

Pure Digital's give-em-what-they-want approach is apparent in its marketing, too. The company lets people customize some of its models with graphics when they place an online order, at no extra charge. You can create your own graphical design through the company's website, or use designs uploaded by others – and the company pays those people a small royalty fee each time their graphic is used.

"We look at this as an investment in building the brand," Kabat said. "I can't give you a specific number, but I can tell you that the vast majority of the cameras we sell now are personalized."

"I believe that technology is enabling self-expression in ways that weren't possible before," he added. "Whether it's your Facebook profile or putting your videos online or personalizing the things you buy - I mean, you can personalize your shoes and your handbags now - I don't think that's going away."

Pure Digital Technologies was acquired this month by networking behemoth Cisco in a half-billion-dollar deal and is now part of Cisco's Consumer Business Group. Cisco has generally been successful at absorbing companies without killing the qualities that made them worth buying in the first place, and if it can do that here, maybe Cisco's expansive product line will in turn absorb some of Pure Digital's design philosophy. And then maybe other tech heavyweights will take notice.

In an industry that has gotten far too used to telling people what they should have rather than really listening to what they want, that would probably be a good thing.

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