Is it at all possible for simplicity to emerge from the twistedprocesses of the corporate mind? I askedmyself this question (again) after reading last week about Cisco’s purchase ofPure Digital, the company behind the fresh and frisky Flip video camera, forover $500 million.
For the uninitiated, the Flip is a deceptively rudimentarygizmo: a small, almost feature-bare camera (no zoom, no fancy framing options,no compensatory lighting mechanics) that lets you shoot, and then instantlymove the video into your computer. Thetransfer is made via a USB port that’s built into the camera.
Once you’ve got the video on your hard drive, the Flip’ssoftware makes it a cinch to upload it to YouTube, or to share in otherways.
The Flip was developed by an entrepreneur and funded by VCs,both of whom latched onto the untapped market for casual video that was beingneglected by the usual-suspect Big Tech technology companies – Sony, Kodak,Panasonic. Their cameras were costly andcomplicated, mis-aligned with the improvisatory spirit of the quick videogeneration.
On one hand, it’s hard to imagine that this opportunity wasmissed by the Big Boys. They could seethe explosion in user-generated video, following as it did a similar crescendoin the taking-and-sharing of digital photos.
And of course, they have great engineers who were certainlycapable of bringing more technology chops to bear than a rag-tag start-up.
Well, that was precisely their problem. Those consumerelectronics giants are historically and reflexively guilty of product gigantism,bent on piling one feature on top of another, rather than peeling them away.
As a result, Big Tech – in love with pixels and performance– was unable to see that consumers were willing, if not anxious, to trade off featuresand functionality for speed and simplicity. Meanwhile, Small Tech, at PureDigital, wasn’t caught in the model of satisfying the egos, and justifying thebig salaries, of perfection-seeking engineers.
The Flip is made for capturing the demotic stuff of life,when picture quality is less important than the sheer fact of preserving themoment. It’s there and available forthe quirky, goofy, everyday experiences that don’t need to be memorialized withperfect framing and lighting. The Flipmakes video part of our daily conversation.
That’s why Small Tech focused on something I call speed-to-shootingtime. The more feature-loaded your videocamera, the more time it takes to get ready to shoot; you’ve got to strugglewith all sorts of frustrating tweaks and turns. By contrast, the Flip comes out of your pocket and is ready to startshooting in a Malcolm Gladwell blink.
And guess what? Evenif someone at Big Tech dreamed up this stripped-down, ripped-down idea, itwould never have survived in its ostentatiously imperfect form. One meeting would have added a zoom, anotherwould have added backlight compensation, and a third would have demanded asmile-recognition feature. By the timeyou know it, the thing would have needed a larger battery to power it, and theFlip would have mutated into a flop.
It was the paradoxically narrow focus and big vision of PureDigital that kept the Flip smartly flawed, falling short of engineeringperfection but deeply satisfying the consumer’s idea of it.
This innovation path is extremely, extremely different for largecompanies to pursue. Why? Well, to start with because they are big andcomplex, they have a mindset that over-values size and complexity. We all love solutions that look likeourselves in the mirror.
So when they’ve got a problem to solve, or an opportunitythat needs to be fulfilled, they respond by throwing teams into the fray. But teams create over-designed andover-engineered solutions, be they hardware or software. Try using any washing machine or GPS systemor microwave and you’ll yearn for a Flippy alternative.
And big companies are also very polite. They never want to hurt anyone’s feelings;it’s easier to add Justin’s feature than “dis-empower” Justin and send himscurrying to HR.
At the same time, the Big Boys are so afraid to fail thatthey over-listen to the professional objectors within. It’s not hard to imagine the torrent of abusethat would have been heaped on the Flip, and the PowerPoint slides that wouldhave been devoted to improve it to death with a “Feature Expansion Platform Development.”
So, my three simple, Flip-inspired mantras for any bigcompany in search of the inchoate mysteries of innovation:
Protect a good idea from people trying to help it.
Just because you candoesn’t mean you should.
The secret of success isn’t just knowing where to start,it’s knowing when to stop.