A Straight Shooter

Article excerpt

Byline: Nick Summers

The idea that less is more has long held true in the arts. In the world of gadgets, not so much. Each year's crop of products is weighted down with more features, more menu options, more, more, more.

Apart from this trend stands a little video camera called the Flip. When it was introduced in 2006, most camcorders resembled button-studded footballs. You held them awkwardly to your eye--after choosing a video mode, and removing the lens cap, and checking to make sure the tape was inserted and rewound. Only then--assuming the action you wanted to capture was still there--were you able to record.

That consumers wanted less hassle seems obvious in hindsight. But at the time, the Flip was alone in this breakthrough. Its creators at Pure Digital Technologies, a San Francisco startup led by CEO Jonathan Kaplan, sheared off nearly everything that was recognizable about the camcorder form. And with each deleted component came a surprising benefit. With the zoom lens and cassette-tape bay gone, the device became small enough to fit in a pocket. There were no cables to lose; users plugged the gadget itself into their computers via a flip-out USB plug. (Yes, that's where the name comes from.) No longer a mystery to operate, the video camera became something new under Pure Digital's unrelenting austerity: fun. Profitable, too--nearly 5 million units have been sold, and Pure Digital was acquired by Cisco for $590 million in stock last year.

Rivals have noticed--and may have beaten Flip at its own game. The only way to make a simpler video camera is for there to be no physical camera to carry at all, and that's what millions of consumers now have in smart phones with built-in video recording. Apple's iPhone 4 not only records in HD but also runs a slick app for editing footage and uploading directly to YouTube, right on the phone itself. How can the Flip compete with that? Kaplan is stubborn about staying the course. "We're not going to add features and functions," he says, describing the competition as "the highest form of flattery."

Kaplan, now 41, cofounded Pure Digital in 2001 after selling another startup, an entertainment-rating service called Family Wonder, to Japanese videogame giant Sega. …