Switched On: A legacy from the Flip side

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Last week's Switched On discussed some of the challenges the Flip camcorder faced trying to grow in the marketplace, an effort abruptly scuttled by an indifferent Cisco. But while Kodak, Sony and others are now poised to fill the Flip void, no competitor exactly matched Flip's combination of simplicity and sharing. With point and shoot cameras, camcorders, traditional MP3 players and standalone GPS units in decline, the jury remains out on how long portable electronics can fight the smartphone, but Flip's success taught the industry some valuable lessons that may have relevance going forward.

Smooth sharing. Even before the Flip was the Flip, Pure Digital would host video on its own Web service, transcoding it on the fly. This was in the days before widespread Flash video, so the files would end up formatted for Windows Media or QuickTime. With the rise of YouTube and other social networks, video sharing is second-nature now and videos are often targeted at the world at large as opposed to just friends and family, but Flip led the way in tying sharing behavior to a traditional consumer electronics device.

Grandparents and growth. We've seen several technology products and services over the years that, by design or default, have nestled into the market of the tech-disenfranchised but failed to resonate with the mass market. Examples include WebTV, the Ceiva digital photo frame, the Presto Internet printer, and the Jitterbug cell phone. But the Flip, despite requiring a PC, brought nearly everyone into its wide net, appealing to grandparents, moms and anyone who wanted a fun, easy camcorder. It was somewhat less popular with younger tech enthusiasts more comfortable with shooting video with their digital cameras or cell phones, but this didn't stop the segment's rapid growth.

Subcategory carveouts. The most enduring legacy of the Flip was its ability to enter a mature category and legitimize a different use case. Whereas the iPod clearly sought to be a Walkman-slayer, the Flip tried to make its case for "everyday video" -- something between the ephemeral food pictures that litter Twitter and the major milestones of weddings, graduations and other major life events -- in other words, the use case of the point-and-shoot camera. Indeed, coming full circle, General Imaging eventually partnered with designer Jason Wu to launch a digital camera with integrated flash memory and a USB connector -- the Flip camcorder of cameras.

But the subcategory carveout -- often facilitated by software and Web services -- has become the key play of many hardware startups with varying levels of success. Peek founder Amol Sarva invoked the Flip often when he talked about how he sought to create a focused wireless messaging product targeted at busy moms, but he eventually found that the product was embraced by businesses looking for an inexpensive messaging platform for field workers, network administrators and the like -- more of a modern-day incarnation of the original BlackBerry.

Avaak, a company that produces a low-powered home surveillance system, has averted the industry's main security message and focused more on being able to check in for shorter periods of time for what it calls a "personal video network." And PogoPlug, calling its system a "personal cloud," broke with the expensive and complex NAS category focused on backups to create a small adapter that allows easy Internet sharing and remote access for hard drives.

And far higher up the food chain, even Apple has played the card with the iPad -- rewriting the usage case for the sleepy "tablet PC" category of yore by optimizing for a different set of tasks and usage scenarios -- and leading many to debate whether it and its Android-based competitors are even PCs to begin with.

The Flip is history, but the way it shook up and ultimately became the focal point for a mature category is part of what's driving a revolution in consumer electronics. It was a milestone in a future that increasingly demands a combination of thoughtfully designed hardware, elegant software, and powerful yet approachable Internet services.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) 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.