The camcorder of the future that no one’s making

June 4, 2007, 8:13 AM UTC

I’m getting ready for a trip to Europe and deciding what tech gear to pack, and the process is reacquainting me with an old beef I still have with the electronics industry – digital camcorders are just awful.

The main problems: They’re too big, they have too many unnecessary controls, they record onto outdated media, and their footage is too tough to manage once you finally get it into a computer. (This sounds like a problem the Apple (APPL) folks could solve beautifully, I know – read to the end for an inside take on why they haven’t.)

It’s gotten to the point where, for me, a point-and-shoot digital still camera has become my camcorder of choice. With my Canon (CAJ) PowerShot SD500 and a 2-gigabyte secure digital card I can shoot about 20 minutes of VGA-quality (640×480) video, and take sharp 7-megapixel photos when I want to. The PowerShot even has optical zoom, and the audio, while not stellar, is good enough.

But the setup is far from ideal. Once I’ve shot a few minutes of video – seven minutes could easily eat up 700 megabytes of storage – it’s tough to transfer to my Mac laptop. iPhoto won’t do the job. iMovie won’t recognize the still camera. Instead I plug a SanDisk (SNDK) MobileMate SD+ adapter into the Mac and read the SD card from that. Then I have to import the video into iMovie, which takes several minutes. It’s a real headache.

I’m not the only consumer clamoring for a simpler, lighter-weight, flash-based camcorder. A quick look at Amazon.com’s (AMZN) list of the top-selling camcorders shows that #3 and #6 are flash-based products in the $150 range from Pure Digital, a company that has won raves for the easy-to-use design. A little further down the list at #18 and #19, the Sanyo Xacti ($600) and the Aiptek GO-HD ($260) offer higher-end flash options that record in high definition. (Numbers 20 through 22 are also flash models.) These are still not good enough though, because they don’t solve the problem of transferring and editing the video once you’ve shot it. That’s still a nightmare.

So why aren’t more companies jumping in with flash offerings? I have a couple of guesses.

One, flash prices only recently dropped to the point where 2 gigabytes (enough to hold 30 minutes of decent video in the MPEG-4 format) can be purchased for as little as $15. The mainstream camera makers have only recently embraced the idea making hard-drive-based camcorders rather than tape-based ones. The hard-drive camcorders have 30 gigabytes of storage available, and the camera makers are comfortable with that; they probably have a hard time believing that a device with far less storage would sell.

Two, making a flash-based camcorder work well is largely a software challenge, and these camera makers do a poor job writing software. The applications they offer for transferring and editing video files are inelegant and confusing, and they always have the feel of something that’s glommed on as an afterthought. These camera makers still haven’t learned from the iPod and iTunes, a piece of hardware and software that compliment each other wonderfully and together create a beautiful user experience.

So why hasn’t Apple jumped in and made a camcorder? The simple answer is, the folks in Cupertino have been busy with the iPhone. But there’s also a more nuanced reason.

About three years ago I ran into an Apple guy at a hockey game, and struck up a conversation – he and I had always gotten along. I said I didn’t expect that the music-only iPod had much life left in it – it was time for a new family of devices that could do more than just tunes. (I’m not sure I was right about this; music-only iPods still sell fine, but Apple has also come out with video versions and AppleTV.) Why don’t you guys make a digital camcorder? I asked. Base it on the iPod design. It doesn’t have to shoot the highest resolution video – people just want something decent, and convenient. You’d revolutionize the industry.

The Apple guy was skeptical – he felt that camcorders are generally pretty well made. But the biggest issue, he said, was the availability of high-quality camera lenses. Suppliers in Asia tend to keep a lock on them, and can use their power over this component to squeeze out competitors. It was just too risky, he said.

Maybe. But Steve Jobs is known for getting his hands on the components he really wants. And if Apple doesn’t do it, maybe someone like Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) or Microsoft (MSFT) will – that is, if it can bear to take a break from all that work on the Zune.