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Video Killed the Radio Star, But Smartphones Did NOT Kill the Flip Cam

You can blame ever-smarter smartphones for plenty of things, but not for killing the Flip. For that, blame Wall Street.

I already had a Sony Handycam, purchased when my first son was born 7 years ago, as well as a video-enabled Canon Elph digital camera (which I've subsequently upgraded several times, they're that good).

So I never took much interest when the first Flip cams started coming out 5 years ago, though I heard plenty of good things about them from lots of peeps, including my brother and his spouse, who used it to shoot videos of their cutey-pie 2-year-old daughter.

Like everyone else, I was puzzled by Cisco's decision to suddenly kill the Flip. News reports cited the rise of Swiss Army Knife-like smartphones ripping the Flip to shreds, just as they have already done to MP3 players, landline phones, GPS units, digital cameras, even wristwatches and flashlights.

I don't buy it. While I wasn't in the market for a 4th video recorder, I would have strongly considered a Flip as a replacement device if it came with some killer new feature, such as Wi-Fi-enabled HD video streaming.

Bingo! That's exactly what the version to have been released this week, the FlipLive, would have had, revealed the New York Times' David Pogue today. This would have let users post links to their live video stream to Twitter or Facebook or e-mail that would have been potentially viewable by hundreds or thousands of of your friends and family.

This beats smartphones like the iPhone 4's FaceTime live video in both video quality (at 640x480, FaceTime's resolution is about one-third of a Flip's 1280x720), and reach, as you can only stream FaceTime to one person at a time.

For the let-it-all-hang-out Facebook generation, this would've been an "amazing" product, as Pogue argued.

Moreover, the Flip was not hurting. It was both reportedly profitable and the market leader. AllThingsD said the Flip was the #1 camcorder in the U.S. with 21.6% of the market, while Pogue said the Flip's market share was even high - 35% of the camcorder market - and was the top-selling camcorder on Amazon.com.

Kodak, JVC, Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Canon, Sanyo, Coby, Toshiba - these are some of the camcorder vendors that would kill for a sniff of that market share.

You can blame ever-smarter smartphones for plenty of things, but not for killing the Flip. For that, blame Wall Street.

I certainly believe that smartphones are getting smarter everyday, and that consumers are rapidly embracing them.

But I also believe Pogue's argument that for the next several years, most smartphones sold will continue to sport inferior video sensors and lenses that lag dedicated devices like the Flip, especially under low light.

"App phones like the iPhone represent only a few percent of cellphone sales. You know who buys app phones? Affluent, East Coast/West Coast, educated, New York Times-reading, Gizmodo-writing Americans. But most of the world doesn’t buy iPhones. Of the 1 billion cellphones sold annually, a few million are iPhones. The masses still have regular cellphones that don’t capture video, let alone hi-def video. They’re the people who buy Flip camcorders. It’s wayyyyyy too soon for app phones to have killed off the camcorder."

Don't let the specs of high-end smartphones fool you. The reality is that even smartphones rated at 1080p today still lag the 720p Flip in video quality for the above-mentioned technical reasons.

While I use my iPhone 4 to shoot most of my video, it's also, my choice of last resort. The video quality today just isn't all that great indoors under low light.

Cisco's decision feels like it was based too much on appeasing investors worried about the vendor losing enterprise focus. Voice recorders have certainly had more of their turf stolen by smartphones than Flips have. But last time I checked, big companies like Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, RCA and others were still profitably making digital voice recorders. And let's not even start with alarm clocks, flashlights, and wristwatches, which the Huffington Post lists as other gadgets killed by the smartphone. With the explosion in small manufacturers today, there are probably even more models of alarm clocks and wristwatches than there were 10 or 20 years ago.

There's always room for single-task devices, as long as they are optimized for what they do. The Flip was not just easy-to-use, but it could be employed so quickly that it made the process of starting to record video on an Android smartphone feel as slow as booting a Windows desktop PC.There's real value there.

So don't blame smartphones for killing off the Flip, the way MTV 'killed' radio. Indeed, that may be the best example of all. Radio may no longer dominate, but it is still a big business today, 30 years after the debut of music videos. Blame a vendor's failure to extract the gold that was lying in front of it in plain sight.