Flip Camera Embodies Year of YouTube

This was the year that YouTube left the world of the collegiate and the nerdy and hit the mainstream in an unavoidable way. A Google search of the term YouTube yields 102 million results. Need further proof? Consider the recent presidential debates, where citizens were encouraged to submit questions via YouTube videos.

The short, snappy video clip as a way to further the conversation, whatever the topic, is most definitely here. With each passing week of the Hollywood writers strike, the medium may be gaining even more momentum.

Still, until recently, planning, constructing and distributing a video has been a challenge for many. While business plans and video-related venture investments are multiplying faster than mold species in my refrigerator, most are likely premature.

Recall that for most of us, reliance on the Internet didn't become a daily reality until Netscape Navigator made browsing completely intuitive. What video has lacked, until now, is the equivalent enabling technology, or to go with the overused analogy, the pick and shovel of this medium's gold rush.

Enter The Flip video camera from Pure Digital Technologies, based in San Francisco. Forget about this as a technology that passes the "my mother can do it" test. This pocket-size $120 camcorder (the bottom-end model with memory to hold 30 minutes of recording time) could probably sail through the "my dog can make it work" challenge.

The one-touch recorder allows instant playback of video on the TV or PC, with no required software installation, customization or need to call the kids for tech support.

Even better, it's easy to pick and turn the video frames into stills to produce action shots that formerly required agility, timing and the technique of a professional photographer — or just a lot of luck.

I am writing about The Flip not as a reviewer of consumer products, but because this camera could fundamentally change the way we view and interact with people and places around us. While Instamatic and disposable cameras led to changes in how we frame what we see, inexpensive pocket video cams, and the ease with which mere technology mortals can now share simply made video, could revolutionize fields ranging from entertainment to education, reporting to communication.

Consider how many people put forth the time and effort to write blogs. Recognize that, while many bloggers appear in denial on this point, comprehensible writing takes dedicated time and considerable thought. Now think about what The Flip enables: point and shoot video "blogs" where in many cases, the picture may well prove the proverb about the value of 1,000 words.

This instant creation and distribution of amateur video, potentially created on every corner of every street, in any town, at any time, clearly has both positive and negative attributes. Real time, right here, right now, capture the moment, sharable images will document every traffic scuffle, soccer score and off-the-cuff candidate comment — just for starters. Welcome to the world of the spontaneous documentary.

On the other hand, we may have to think twice about our actions now, knowing that Big Brother, or perhaps worse, Little Sister (as in "Mo-om, look what Billy did") will always be right around the corner with video camera in hand.

A few years ago, Scott McNealy, longtime CEO of Sun Microsystems, when asked about preservation of personal information, famously said, "You have no privacy; get over it." The comment appears more prescient every day.

Clearly, the changes that will emerge from this impending explosion of pocket video cameras, the good and the less good, won't change our world in the near term. However, just as the wide adoption of the text-based, consumer Internet dramatically expanded access to information, the way we communicate and how we conduct commerce, the adoption of easily produce-able, readily accessible, consumer video will likely lead to immense change in how we chat, shop, work and in the extreme, behave in public.

Once again, it is difficult to predict anything but the scale of the societal changes likely to arise from a small, seemingly innocuous advance in technology.

In the meantime, if you're still looking for holiday gift ideas, get a jump on the future, beat the rush and find a Flip. In five years, we'll all wonder how we all got by without them.

Lise Buyer, a longtime Silicon Valley investor, is a principal at the Class V Group, www.classvgroup.com