First look at "revolutionary" social news iPad app: Flipboard

You’ve seen Twitter clients like TweetDeck or Seesmic, but you’ve never seen one like this.
You’ve seen news readers like NewsGator, Google Reader, or, even, newer ones for iPad like Pulse, but you’ve never seen one like this.
You’ve seen news aggregators like Techmeme, Google News, Skygrid, Yahoo News, Hacker News, or Huffington Post, but you’ve never seen one like this.

What is “this?” It’s Flipboard.

It’s from a new company you’ve never heard from before. Embedded here is an exclusive interview with CEO Mike McCue. You might have heard of Mike before. He sold a company, TellMe, to Microsoft for about $800 million dollars. Flipboard, the company, has already had one round of funding from Kleiner Perkins and today is announcing a new round of funding along with an acquisition of the Ellerdale Project (http://www.ellerdale.com/).

What is Flipboard? It turns your Facebook and Twitter account into something that looks like a magazine. It also lets you build a custom magazine, either by choosing from Flipboard’s pre-built curated “boards” or by importing Twitter lists. This is a very powerful and engaging way to read Twitter. You can also turn a single person’s Twitter account, or a single brand’s Twitter account, into a Flipboard. For instance, you can follow Techcrunch on Twitter with it and it will turn Techcrunch into a beautiful magazine-like interface that’s easier to read than any other reader.

The differentiator for Flipboard is the design. Lots of touches that make it engaging:

1. Touch an article and it “zooms” to reveal more.
2. Touch a video and it plays inline.
3. Turn your iPad and everything reconfigures, even photos switch from vertical to horizontal formats.
4. Touch “read more on Web” on longer articles and instantly be transported to the original website that was the originator of the information discussed in the tweet.
5. When you bring in your Facebook friends your friends’ photos, status messages, will all be laid out in attractive pages.
6. You can touch to share, favorite, like, or retweet, depending on what you are reading.

To get a sense of how dramatically different Flipboard is from any other Facebook or Twitter client, you should watch the video we filmed with McCue where he demoed the app for our cameras. In the interview he covered the philosophy of this interesting new company, demoed the product for us, and talked about where the company is going.

So, why is this disruptive, or even, revolutionary? Revolutionary isn’t our word, either, but is what actor/entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher said when we showed him the app to get a feeling for how it would affect the content businesses he’s involved in. He’s not the only one, either. We showed it to Wolfram Alpha’s CEO, Barak Berkowitz and he said “it’s one of the most awesome iPad apps I’ve ever seen.”

Techcrunch has covered that in a second post about why Flipboard is a killer app that — on first look — appears very disruptive to Twitter client producers, news readers, and news aggregator/publishing companies. In that second article we’ve also laid out why Twitter and the iPad have set in place the ingredients for a real media revolution — one that goes way beyond other publishing systems and one that further moves our reading behavior away from RSS aggregators.

But here let’s discuss how it works.

You add in your Twitter and Facebook accounts. It builds tiles, or “sections” out of your accounts. If you are an advanced user you can add in other people’s Twitter accounts, Twitter lists, or choose from a pre-done set of custom boards to choose from. More on those in a minute.

You then click on the section it builds after you flip past a “cover” that is made from photos that it finds from your friends and people you’re following on Twitter. The cover itself is pretty interesting, but the meat is inside, so we’ll focus on that.

Click on “Facebook,” for instance, and you’ll see your friends’ photos, tweets, status messages, articles, and videos. Just drag your finger through page after page, er, board after board, of these things. This is your Facebook news feed, but in a way you’ve never seen it before — all laid out like a newspaper. Click on any item and you can see the originating status message and all comments. You can “like” the item, or comment on it too.

How did Flipboard find these things? After all, I have 1,800 friends on Facebook and am following 19,000 people on Twitter and it filters out most of the noise I see on other Twitter and Facebook readers. Well, it has a set of algorithms that are looking for highly engaged items. You know, items that have lots of comments, likes, or retweets. It also has an algorithm that senses photography that’s been linked to from Facebook status messages and it lays those photos out.

When you reopen Flipboard it re-paginates the whole set of boards (you can only display nine sections at a time, which is a major limitation of the first version, but more on limitations in a second.

Along the bottom is a timeline that you can run your finger across to see a menu of all items. If you get to the end of the timeline and want to see more, just flip the last board over and it will go and get more pages for you to view.

LIMITATIONS

This is quite remarkable, and addictive to play with, but there are lots of things we’d like to see Flipboard add. More section tiles, for instance, is desperately needed. I have 25 different Twitter lists of just my own, for instance, and if you go to Listorious you can find thousands of lists on all sorts of different topics, all of which make good Flipboard sections.

Some might wonder why RSS isn’t used. That will be a limitation for some people, especially if you are trying to follow a blogger who doesn’t yet put their stuff into Twitter (naughty!) In reality, though, there is so much that IS on Twitter or Facebook that this limitation isn’t that big a deal. If you find some cool blog you can Tweet it and then it’ll show up in Flipboard anyway.

After playing with this I wanted to have Flipboard on my Android and iPhones. Unfortunately the team has chosen to focus solely on iPads for right now but are considering other devices for the future.

There’s no advertising, which leaves us guessing as to what the business model will be in the future. Mike McCue told me they are looking at new, design-centric, advertising that could possibly fill a page or a portion of a page.

A major limitation is that this is a reading and commenting app, not one where you can build your own tweets or Facebook status messages. I found myself often wanting to tweet from inside the app as I was reading.

It also doesn’t use LinkedIn or Google Buzz, both social networks I’d like to turn into Flipboards.

WHAT IT GOT RIGHT

Flipboard got a LOT right. It shows how you can enter a crowded space of Twitter clients with something that’s beautiful. The interaction design is beyond anything I’ve seen from a startup since Siri came on the scene earlier this year (and was almost instantly purchased by Apple).

They are totally right to bet on Facebook and Twitter. These are the default information sharing systems for most people now and are both mature enough to serve as news sources. I have a Twitter list of world news brands, for instance, that is awesome in Twitter. http://twitter.com/scoblemedia/world-news-brands Lots of people haven’t seen the power of lists like these, but now they will, and they’ll also understand that Twitter isn’t just about telling people what you’re doing.

WHAT IT DID NOT GET RIGHT

There is a lot missing from Flipboard. First, the #1 thing we need is more tiles, or what they call “sections.” Nine is simply not enough.

Second, we need a far better “store” from which to find new sections, er, Twitter lists. Yes, you can eventually figure out that you can search for people, lists, etc, but we need a better way to do that. I wish there were a stronger tie between Listorious, which I find has a very nice way to find lists, and Flipboard, which makes it somewhat difficult to find new lists to make into Flipboard sections.

Third, as a content producer, I’m very worried that this takes too much of the brand and advertising dollars away from the content producers. If I share a Techcrunch article, for instance, I get more credit than Techcrunch does inside Flipboard. That’s not good. Also, they need a better way for content producers to tell Flipboard just how much of the text they are using. Right now Flipboard looks for an RSS feed from a content producer to see if they’ve set full text, or partial text, or headline only, to figure out the syndication rules but there needs to be a way inside Flipboard for publishers to communicate their wishes since I’m sure lots of publishers won’t like what they see inside Flipboard. From a user standpoint, though, I find this reading experience to be unparalleled, so media producers should work with Flipboard instead of flipping out, as I expect some of them like Rupert Murdoch to do.

There are still some bugs. I often see duplication of articles, especially in my lists that follow larger numbers of people (Flipboard’s own curated lists have small numbers of sources to keep them cleaner). I also occasionally see bad text or bad headlines that were pulled in. But those are minor problems for a 1.0 beta and will be fixed, the team says.

THE FUTURE OF FLIPBOARD

The acquisition of the Ellerdale Project, this morning, gives Flipboard lots of new “trending” features to build as well as some strong algorithms to further reduce the noise and pull out great items for us to read, no matter what the list is we’re aiming Flipboard at.

Overall this is an extraordinary iPad app and one that will shake the media world for quite some time.

ANALYSIS OF WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT:

Every once in a while I get an early look at a “killer app.” I still remember the day I first saw Pagemaker (back then from a company named Aldus, which later sold to Adobe). That app, along with a $5,000 laser printer from Apple, was a “killer app” for the Macintosh. Why? Because if you wanted to do a new form of publishing you needed to buy a Macintosh, a laser printer (back then $5,000) and Aldus’ Pagemaker.

I’ve been using my iPad since the very first day and have been looking for that “killer app” that would give me a reason to tell you why you must get an iPad. In other words, an app that would justify buying an iPad for a large number of people.

We’ve seen other companies get close. Last month Techcrunch wrote about Pulse, a news reader for the iPad. I downloaded it, but it wasn’t revolutionary, just a nicer done RSS news reader. Earlier this week another nice news app, Apollo, was announced in Techcrunch, but I quickly answered back on Twitter that I had already been beta testing something that went far beyond what they were offering.

“So, Scoble, spill the beans already!”

The app I’ve been using? Flipboard. See the news article elsewhere on Techcrunch for more details, since Flipboard also announced new funding and an acquisition too.

It does something very simple: it turns your Twitter and Facebook into something that looks like a magazine.

But, don’t miss what’s happening here, because there’s a news revolution that has been born due to Twitter. First, you must see that Twitter has moved from being just for a way to follow your friends to a way you can follow news brands. Techcrunch, for instance, has a Twitter feed that I follow in Flipboard and other Twitter readers like Seesmic, Tweetdeck, and Twitterrific. But go further, I have a list of 216 news brands like the BBC, CNN, New York Times, etc at http://twitter.com/scoblemedia/world-news-brands. You add that into Flipboard and you have the most complete newspaper-style media you’ve ever seen. You can follow just the BBC, or just the New York Times, or just your local newspaper on Twitter.

The problem is that when you see the New York Times on Twitter.com it looks boring. You don’t see the great photography that the New York Times provides. You don’t have an easy-to-read layout. And if you try to read the New York Times along with my list of news journalists or if you want to follow Techcrunch’s staff writers on Twitter you’ll see them all mixed together with all the noise that comes with that. If MG Siegler posts what he’s drinking on Friday night, as he did last week, it is weighted the same as a New York Times article of international importance.

This makes reading Twitter far less useful than it could be and it lays out why Flipboard is a publishing revolution. Oh, don’t take my word for it. I showed actor/entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher Flipboard and he turned to me and said “this is revolutionary.” Then he asked me for an introduction to Flipboard so he could invest in the company (which he did). Nearly every person I gave a sneak peak to Flipboard said the same thing after playing with it.

It’s disruptive to several groups: those who publish media, especially news organizations; those who produce Twitter clients; and those who produce news aggregators.

“One of the most awesome iPad apps I’ve ever seen,” is what Barak Berkowitz, CEO of Wolfram Alpha, told me after he saw it. “It brings to life the real capabilities of social media.”

“It takes a lot of the stuff from nerddom to mainstream,” Gary Lauder, VC at Lauder Partners, and TED speaker. “My mother is not going to read tweets, but she will read Flipboard.”

But it isn’t just the app that makes this a significant new company.

It also is backed by an interesting team, starting with co-founder Mike McCue who started TellMe, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2007 for $800 million. < << http://www.crunchbase.com/company/tellme >>>

It also has already made an interesting acquisition, of Ellerdale < << http://www.crunchbase.com/company/ellerdale >>> which has been building algorithms using semantic technology that filters the real-time stream by topics, instead of keyword strings. Basically, this means that Flipboard has some cool trending topics features and noise control that will come in future versions.

It also has a list of impressive venture capitalists, including Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, Google investor Ron Conway, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, The Chernin Group founded by Peter Chernin, Alfred Lin, Peter Currie, Quincy Smith, actor/entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher, and major investors Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Index Ventures.

But that’s not why I view this as disruptive. It just is plain fun to use. I’ve spent more than 50 hours on it so far and love that it removes most noise from my Twitter feed, makes me much more productive in finding interesting items, and is plain addictive to use. It also makes me feel like I’m reading an old-time newspaper with beautiful design that helps me find important items to my life. Not every Twitter item is interesting and Flipboard focuses on that.

What do you think? If you have an iPad already do you agree that this is a “killer app?” If you don’t have an iPad does this push you over the purchasing decision line?