Ode To My Flip Camera

flip camera side photo

Images credit Lloyd Alter

Regular readers of TreeHugger will know that I am a dreadful photographer and a worse videographer. In fact, I had never taken a film or video in my life until I bought a Flip camera at J&R; in New York City on May 15, 2008 to use at ICFF. Comments on my first video post were damning, suggesting " the videographer has more of a thing for the guy than the table ?!?! I'm not interested in purchasing a European styled guy, so show more of the table! How frustrating!!!!"

But I did get better, and came to love the Flip as a wonderful piece of design. And now Cisco has killed it.
My first video ever. Comment on YouTube: "This is a terrible video."

The Flip made video accessible, not just because it was so easy to use, to connect and upload to the computer, but because its form was not intimidating; it was so small and inconspicuous that it actually made interviewing easier. For both the intimidated videographer and the nervous interviewee, it was just a little thing that didn't look like a camera, it was something else. The quality was, as Robert Capps of Wired put it two years ago, a prime example of "The Good Enough Revolution",

It's just the latest triumph of what might be called Good Enough tech. Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere. We get our breaking news from blogs, we make spotty long-distance calls on Skype, we watch video on small computer screens rather than TVs, and more and more of us are carrying around dinky, low-power netbook computers that are just good enough to meet our surfing and emailing needs. The low end has never been riding higher.

Except now, two years later, skype isn't spotty, new computer screens are bigger than old TVs, netbook computers are being killed by the iPad and the Flip is being killed by smartphones like the iPhone that take "good enough" video.

But those smartphones require expensive data connections, and need to be charged regularly; the Flip doesn't have a contract and can sit for days. I took it to Ecuador last year and lasted a week in the jungle with only one extra pair of AA batteries. Sometimes a single use device makes sense.

Capp complains in his obit for the Flip in Wired that Cisco got it wrong by concentrating on video quality instead of connectivity. He writes:

I hope that when other gadget makers look at story of the Flip, they see how Pure Digital got it right, and Cisco then got it wrong. In the age of connectivity, accessibility is the driving quality to strive for -- not features and fidelity.


With the rise of HD, my original Flip was no longer "good enough" for TreeHugger video and went to the camera store to buy the upgrade. I got seriously upsold to a "real" video camera. The manual is a quarter inch thick. The software doesn't work with macs. It shoots in a proprietary format so that I had to buy conversion software to make it work on YouTube. You can't upload photos unless the battery charger is plugged in, which is totally idiotic.

It takes beautiful video and the sound quality is far better, but it is not intuitive, not accessible, and is probably the worst bit of user interface design that I have seen since my first VCR.

Dieter Rams once listed his Ten Commandments of Design, which TreeHugger has pretty much adopted:

1. Good design is innovative
2. Good design makes a product useful
3. Good design is aesthetic
4. Good design helps a product to be understood
5. Good design is unobtrusive
6. Good design is honest
7. Good design is durable
8. Good design is consistent to the last detail
9. Good design is concerned with the environment
10. Good design is as little design as possible

The Flip was everything good design should be: simple, cheap, effective and easy, no contract required. I guess for a company like Cisco, there's not enough money in that. What a shame.

More on the Flip:
Bioneers 2008: How to Use Digital Media for Environmental Activism - Advice from the Experts

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