RIP Flip, what’s next for the scrapheap?

Cisco FlipIt burned brightly in its short lifespan but the Flip Ultra camcorder is toast, gobbled up by ever-smarter smartphones, the disruptive power of which forewarns of bigger convulsions to come and which will change the news landscape forever.

Cisco learned their lesson the hard way, shelling out $590m to acquire Pure Digital Technologies in 2009 in pursuit of a device that had continuously topped Amazon’s best-seller list.

It must all have looked so promising to the execs who signed the cheque back then, blind as they were to the burgeoning growth of mobile and incapable of envisioning the blistering rate of development.

The only saving grace is that they’ve recognized the inevitable and won’t be putting in good money after bad, though that’s scant consolation for the 550 workers who will be laid off.

News organizations haven’t reached that point yet. They’re desperately trying to keep afloat, cutting margins, slicing services, laying people off, trying to stay relevant and all the while holding onto existing audiences and reaching new ones.

Cisco could still find a buyer for Flip if they let it go for a trivial amount, but the purchaser would have to invest considerable capital to extend its life and to improve the modest capabilities that only a couple of years ago were lauded for their simplicity.  Realistically, its time has been and gone.

We’ve seen this before, of course. Mobile has disrupted multiple areas of everyday life and it continues to change the way we interact with the world around us. It’s a timekeeper, an alarm clock, a games machine, a music player, a recording device, a camera, a navigation aid, a video player, a musical instrument, an information source, a news machine.

The time for news hasn’t yet come, but the clock is ticking and for many organizations mobile is still only the most junior of partners, something that is a way off in the future; they get it, but it’s a distraction in the daily battle to hold onto audience and revenue.

My former colleague Kevin Anderson in a post on Rethinking the jobs newspapers do, cites two findings from the NewspaperNext project that have a bearing on this:

  • Cramming old products into new forms is the wrong approach so new companies with new approaches win.

The writing was on the wall for Flip more than two years ago, it’s just that the Cisco people couldn’t see it. The writing is on the wall for the news business too, but the blinkers need to come off.

Audiences need new kinds of news products that let them filter by relevance, or location, or context. News organizations need a better understanding of who they are serving and with what – and that’s going to mean partnering with former competitors and taking a very different approach.

The most innovative news product of recent times – Zite – has been met with understandable hostility from major content producers and a flurry of cease-and-desist letters from their lawyers.

That’s a huge shame, because everyone I’ve spoken to who’s used Zite has loved it, but pillaging other people’s material and profiting from it isn’t a sensible or sustainable business model.

Had Zite sought prior approval from publishers I doubt it would be out of the starting blocks even now. Sometimes showing, rather than talking, can be a powerful persuader and the glimpse it has given of future consumption capabilities is a compelling proposition.

Rather than picking a fight, news organizations should applaud the inventiveness of their approach and try to figure out a way to put things on a fair and equitable footing, or risk losing a route to their future survival.


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