Switched On: The camcorder strikes back

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

As it often does at its product introductions, Apple took a subtle swipe at the Flip camcorder when it introduced the video camera-equipped iPod nano this fall. The sales volumes of the iPod nano even caused some to proclaim Apple's revision of the most popular iPod to be a Flip-killer. The inexpensive Flip camcorder has long proven tenacious, however, fending off competition from major brands such as Sony and Kodak, as well as value players like Aiptek and DXG -- not to mention nearly every digital camera and cellphone that can shoot video. Besides, the iPod nano has outsold the Flip camcorder many times over; why would Apple care about such incremental competition?

One answer is that the developers of the Flip camcorder (now the Pure Digital division of Cisco) aren't just hawking a cheap digital geegaw. Even before Pure Digital sold its first "disposable" camcorder, the company understood ecosystems. Back then, that involved installing processing equipment at retailers such as CVS, as the company's business model relied on getting consumers to develop prints and create DVDs in stores. Since those days, the utilitarian application it originally shipped for transferring videos to PCs has given way to FlipShare , which is clearly designed to be the equivalent of iTunes for video. And more recently, it introduced to provide its own spin on organizing and sharing videos online, including to devices beyond the PC.

That became evident with the recent debut of FlipShareTV, a digital media adapter with a couple of twists. Much like the Apple TV extends iTunes to the TV, FlipShareTV extends the FlipShare software. But unlike TV add-ons that can access multiple media types and tap in to services like Netflix, FlipShareTV plays only personal video (and photos clipped from videos). This enables a simpler marketing message than, say, Apple TV. FlipShareTV also requires that the host PC use a USB stick in order to pair with and stream videos to the FlipShareTV. Cisco's rationale is that configuring a device on WiFi is difficult enough to alienate a large part of the market that Pure Digital wants to reach. (Again: take that, Apple TV.) This is, to say the least, a surprising approach coming from a division of the greatest commercial champion of Internet Protocol on the globe, and owner of Linksys, the leading brand of consumer home networking equipment

With FlipShareTV, Pure Digital has worked hard -- perhaps too hard -- to remove some of the marketplace and technical barriers in getting video from Computer A to Television B. Putting aside the challenges that home networking add-ons for TVs have faced overall and whether there is enough demand for a product as specialized as FlipShareTV, the product is more interesting in what it signifies than what it achieves. Much like Apple used its ecosystem to ward off competitors in the MP3 player space, Pure Digital's integration of hardware, software and services are designed to defend it as declining flash memory prices enable larger competitors to narrow the gap with the Flip's size and price.

As its ecosystem develops, though, Pure Digital could easily shift to using it for other content types -- photos would be a natural next step, and then perhaps even music. Pure Digital humbly notes that it is simply looking to build trust with consumers as they use its products to store and share their memories. But it's also building what could be a dark horse rival to the Apple and Microsoft approach to processing and managing personal content -- content that's the key part of consumers' digital lifestyles. Upending their value would be a flip indeed.

(Ed. note: Want more on the FlipShareTV? Check out our full review!)

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.