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The Day the Flip Cam Died: A Requiem

Published
By Mo Krochmal, dealnews guest columnist

I saw my first Flip camcorder in a Duane Reade store on Fifth Avenue in 2007, encased in the hard plastic, hanging behind the cashiers. As I recall, it was $35 and you sent the camera in/off to have the video created. I made a mental note — “disposable video” — and filed it away.

So, today’s news that Cisco is ending production of the Flip makes me nostalgic. I loved the product and it helped me teach students how to do simple video storytelling and that, in turn, helped them find jobs, which is the point of it all.

However, as a long-time tech reporter, I was stunned when Cisco decided to buy Pure Digital Technologies for almost $600 million in stock in 2009 as a consumer device seemed so against Cisco’s enterprise heavy technology and sales culture. So, it’s not surprising that they are backing away now.

This technology has sold millions of units and it has found a home in journalism, public relations and education. The phone is not there yet, but the writing is on the wall. Flip I’ll miss you.

Early Flip
I first started to integrate the Flip into my work as soon as it was release. In the early days of my first professorship, I was talking about the need for all journalism students to be able to collect video and know how to use it to tell stories. I had bought my own first generation Flip and turned it on, with the happy little two-note “flip” tone indicating that it was ready to work. I shot some video and then showed it. Within a month or so, the program I was working with had purchased 35 second generation Flips, whose big innovation was the tripod screw in the bottom.

Over the next two years, I integrated Flips into my curriculum of online journalism in the higher education classroom. The program had purchased enough Flips for a 1-to-3 ratio of camcorders to students. There were assignments along the way to get the students to start integrating video into their learning and reporting. The first day of class, I would check out about 10 Flips and would send the students out to find someone, anyone, to interview. I ran through a quick tutorial — “hold it vertically with two hands, get close to the subject you are interviewing, nod when you turn it on and let them talk.”

The students had a 20-minute period of time to go out and do their interviews and then come back. In the classroom, the uploaded their short videos to Blip.tv and we could then watch them on the projector in the front of the class.

The program I was teaching in had a very robust broadcast program and, for students who came in with aspirations of being “print” journalists, the ability to do video seemed out of reach, or something for the broadcast kids to do. Suddenly, video was out of the journalism silo, and the Flip camcorder made it possible.

My journalism curriculum was constructed around a final project that had the students report a story with multimedia tools, requiring a 2-minute online video package, as well as a text piece with links, and a social media plan. The video package started with a 15-second standup, followed by 00:01:15 of a story told with at least two sources on camera, and closed with a 15-second wrapup.

I taught the students how to edit using Microsoft’s MovieMaker software as it was free and widely available on the school’s news room as well as most of the students’ personal computers. While free, the software allowed the use of more than one audio track and the insertion of graphics and still photographs, all good enough to support simple storytelling.

While the tools were at the low end, they served to gently introduce the students to telling stories with pictures that move, and most importantly, with audio.

Now, there is where Flip was less than perfect. These second generation camcorders had really awful microphones that fuzzed up sounds at one end of the spectrum and did not have a lot of range. I trained the students to understand the limitations of the hardware and how to use it to do what it does best — document someone telling their story full frame. It was more about the person being interviewed than about the person behind the camera.

The students used the cameras and came back with great interviews. The best story I recall is one student, shooting by herself outside a prison, had taken off her sneakers and put them on top of her car and used it to cradle her Flip while she did a standup with the prison behind her. Another student did her standup beside a busy Long Island parkway, as cars swooshed past. One time, I encountered three of my students in a hallway, their eyes wide and the adrenaline flowing. They had just come back from some street reporting in a sketchy part of town, where, they said, a policeman had stopped by where they were Flip camming and told then they pretty much shouldn’t be there.

Another time, I ran into another one of my former students, lugging a big tripod, a broadcast camera and a big canvas bag holding other equipment as she went to record an interview.

Your cameras are so much easier to carry, she said.

Flips pretty much can fit into a pocket. It’s much less intimidating to someone who is not used to being interviewed than the whole broadcast kit. You can carry a Flip and a small tripod and set it up on a desk and can record an hour or so of a panel discussion and then easily upload it.

The downside of the Flip: The audio quality was really poor and it needed a jack for an external mic. That made my buying decision last spring for Kodak’s Zi8. And, that all created a cascade of financial decisions. To do HD editing, even at the low end, I had to invest in a Mac. I just could find no low-end PC solution so I bit the bullet and bought a MacBook Pro, and Final Cut Express.

On the Road With Handheld Cameras
Last summer, I was invited to travel with internet pioneer Jeff Pulver on a 12-state, 7-day road trip throughout the Midwest, talking to people in towns and cities about how the real-time Internet has affect their lives or their businesses. I was the embedded reporter on the trip and got to sit in the back seat of a new Buick and share at 70 miles an hour, using two different mobile WiFi systems. As we made stops in cities across the Midwest, I would record interviews with my Zi8, using a handheld LED light, a lavalier mic and a handle I had brought. I posted some 60 quick interviews on Facebook after doing some light editing in the car and sending them through WiFi.

Additionally, I would do a live stream report as we arrived in each meetup, using my Nokia N97 and the Qik.com service. I would stand in front of the place we would be meeting folks and say hello, this is where we are and that would stream out, with a tweet, and then be archived. Somewhere, I have edited all of these together.

But, for quality, it was the handheld Zi8. I would do the interviews, trying to keep them to about a minute at longest and trying to keep my talking at a minimum. Then, I would take the card out and transfer the files to my desktop, open them, do quick edits and then send them to Facebook, using the iMovie interface. While the mobile WiFi was convenient, it was painfully slow. No real-time there and even moving to a hotel WiFi in the evenings made such a difference in upload.

Kodak’s tool is much better for my purposes, but one of my Twitter colleagues tells me that he feels that the Zi8 will go the same way as the Flip. I don’t believe so, for a while anyway, because of the cost. A phone with great video in it is still not financially an easy decision and the handheld price is accessible. There is a market for this kind of video device and the expectations of the viewer are not for broadcast quality — yet.

What I want:
I want high quality (HD) video, that streams easily from where I am, when I’m there. My iPhone 3GS allows me to use the Qik.com service and it is a go-to tool for me (check qik.com/Krochmal). I bought my 3GS in February when the sensor on my year-and-a-half old Nokia N97 went kaput, leaving me with little option for affordable repair as Nokia has closed down its retail outlets.

So, I went with the $49 iPhone, paid for the Qik app and started using it in my mobile reporting lifestyle. I have been disappointed. Upload times are glacial — less than a megabyte per second and the sound apparently is easily unsynched, which was not a problem with the N97. I’m really looking forward to upgrading to the iPhone 5.0 sometime this summer, although that will likely cost me around $500 as I don’t have an upgrade due on my AT&T account until like 2012. But, if I can get higher quality video, and photos, that is worth it to me.

As a journalism educator and a journalism practitioner, I believe the phone a critical instrument in our reporting toolkit. My to-go kit includes a WiFi iPad, a Zi8, a tripod, a small microphone, and all the things I need to get juice from an outlet as well as extra cards. I carry extra cards, a small lavalier mike from Radio Shack, a bracket and an LED light as well as a lightweight tripod from Targus. Whole deal weighs less than 5 pounds.

So, will I continue to teach with the Zi8? I’ll probably adjust my teaching to reflect whatever hardware the students have, because it’s not really about the tool, but the story it helps you tell. Meantime, Kodak, will you put a WiFi chip in the Zi8? That’s all I need to use your product in the age of now.


Mo Krochmal is a digital pioneer in journalism and an educator. He introduced Flip camcorders into his high education journalism curriculum in 2007 and continues to advocate for affordable tools to do sophisticated storytelling. Follow him on Twitter at @krochmal.

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy Mo Krochmal and Amazon.com.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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1 comment
ashram28
Wow!!! I really love this. I want to have it. I love taking pictures and video recording. I'm sure i'm going to enjoy this stuff.
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