The power of simplicity

In 2007, Jonathan Kaplan and Ariel Braunstein turned the US camcorder market on its head by creating a camcorder that was simpler than anything else on the market.

At the time, companies like Sony and Panasonic were trying to win sales by adding advanced features such as the ability to add Hollywood-style captions and video effects in the camera.

By comparison, the Flip was crude, with low resolution and missing “basic” features like optical zoom. One year later the Flip had come from nowhere to sell a million units—at a time when the entire US market was just 6 million units.

Kaplan and Braunstein realized that camcorders had become complex, bulky, and intimidating. Most people didn’t want to produce feature films at home—they wanted to pull out a camera, capture a spontaneous event, and share it on YouTube.

The Flip made that as simple as possible, ditching any features that were not essential. There were no cables that could get lost, just a flip-out USB connector that gave the camcorder its name. There were only nine buttons, including a big red Record button. There wasn’t even a CD of software for your computer; the necessary software was stored on the camcorder itself, and you could download it when you first connected the Flip to your computer.

Simple products, like the Flip, the original VW Beetle, and Twitter, often have a profound effect on markets. They are easy to use, so they find a popular audience; they are reliable, so people develop an attachment to them; and they are adaptable, so they end up being used in surprising ways.

Today, the Flip has gone, replaced by the camcorder app on people’s smartphones. There’s no need for a separate device to view videos or upload them to YouTube. Simplicity won again. Simplicity is disruptive; anyone can be caught out by it, even the simplifiers.