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?

Comments

  1. I am using Flipboard on the iPad and I must say its better than the Pulse news reader.
    And its free :)

  2. Wow…already considering iPad because it can actually read the PDF manuals and ebooks I download…this just made it that much better. Do you read ebooks often? how is it?

  3. Jimmy Shoes are the kind of shoes that have brought a revolution in the minds of the wearers and the people who see them wearing them become rebellious in a special way. Jimmy Shoes created a kind of uprising that has never been seen before, this for sure. The top stylists in shoes have gone on to design the Jimmy Shoes lather thigh high
    http://www.jimmychooshoes.us

  4. Fantastic app. I haven't read your post, but will when I can drag myself away from playing with Flipbook.

  5. it took me some 20 mins to login to my facebook and twitter account (service temporarily not available for facebook and “flipboard over capacity” for twitter).
    Anyways, it worked and i finally have a reason to use my iPad again.
    Thanks Robert, it's a great little app

  6. Look pretty good. I've downloaded it and I'm going to try it (I got login errors for both Facebook and Twitter to begin with but I'll give it another go). It seems a bit like the iPad app Early Edition, but quite a bit more complex at it involves social networks rather than just blog feeds.

  7. I’d say potentially, you don’t need more section tiles, so much as the ability to push this concept to big ass 30″ monitors, or projectors – Isn’t this moving to how you read your tweets in a way Robert?

    Big screen/projection space is better – that’s why this app works on an ipad but wouldn’t on an iphone. That’s why potentially it would be get even better at a larger size.

    Imagine FlipBoard on a 30″ Apple monitor, or shown on a iMac? Or on a >40″ HDTV, but being slaved by an Apple remote?

    This hints at why a touch enabled Mac OS, or at least apps for ATV that could be remote controlled by an iphone could have a market.

  8. Pretty cool. It actually made me think of Feedly, something I dearly love (and which I desparately want an iPad version of).

  9. Might be worth also giving Evan Doll (who people might recognise from CS193P – Stanfords widely successful iPhone Programming free course on iTunes) a mention.

  10. I’ve been using Flipboard since today morning, and it really is a truly revolutionary way to consume your twitter stream. All other clients (Twitterific for iPad as my favorite) tend to increase the cognitive load when viewing your twitter stream.

  11. Great App! You need this for iPhone as well … also, Windows versions and Windows Phone 7 versions would rock!! Especially with Panaramas!!

  12. What about PRIVACY?

    Seems that everyone is in a rush to give all their personal login details to these people.

    And what’s the business model? If you’re not paying to buy the app, your personal details are going to be paying later on through directed advertising and other channels.

    This is the difference between Flipboard and the other RSS/Twitter aggregators – they’re passive apps pulling data to your iPad for analysis, wheras Flipboard keeps your details on its servers.

    No thank you!!!

  13. Looks pretty – but it’s not good for people that want to skim through lots of info quickly, which is the typical feed reader users.

    I can see this being popular with people that just want to get a social view of the news.

  14. This does look exciting. I'm wondering if they will have an Android or webOS tablet version in the future!

    I'm probably more concerned about whether apps like this can survive when the mainstream media notices it.

    This and Pulse seem primed to present magazines on the fly but if the MSM cuts the infortainment hose, it could die. It seemed like earlier this year that every magazine or newspaper was prepping an iPad app (and last year a Kindle edition), but when a third party app does it, where do they go?

    If you're someone with a podcast (and you are!) that makes revenue from ads or sponsors, will apps like this be friendly? Or will there be two levels of ads — ads from the app maker and then ads within the media itself?

  15. BTW: since you love Twitter so much and Apple products, I don't know how you were able to summon the self-restraint not to show this around and drop months worth of hints! Bravo.

  16. The application is still pretty “raw”

    Hooked my @marfuzii twitter & fb account (roughly around 1500 users) and the application will not start… the error log returned:

    “Application Specific Information:
    com.flipboard.flipboard-ipad failed to launch in time
    elapsed total CPU time (seconds): 1.220 (user 0.550, system 0.670), 6% CPU
    elapsed application CPU time (seconds): 0.120, 1% CPU”

    I hope they will be able to fix it!

  17. One more thing, what happens witht he “beauty of noise” – those small moments of great discovery of awesome content that we experience daily, that otherwise we might be stripped off if only machines and algorythms are calculating what to show in the magazine…

  18. Up top where you mention how impressed Ashton Kutcher was with it, for clarity you should put your disclosure up there that he's part of the VC that's funding it (if I'm reading that paragraph right that says it has an “It also has a list of impressive venture capitalists.”) At first I wondered why Ashton Kutcher belongs in this review at all. And then I read on to see that he's a funder so of course he's impressed with it. I think it's fair to say that biases his impression and you should flag that earlier.

  19. Now if you could import your email streams into it as well, we'd really have something here, close to the vision I laid out in this post:

    http://businessmindhacks.com/post/can-smart-fil

    Also, on top of whatever intelligent algorithms they cram into it, there should be manual overrides with per user/per group keyword based surfacing (essentially like Twitter's “Track” used to be only more granular), as well as possibly muting in the same way. E.g. if Scoble is talking about Rackspace, I never want to hear about it… :)

    If he's talking about Curation, I want to hear about it first thing and have it be pushed all the way to the top of the heap.

  20. Very slick content consumption app. Seems like it's really de-emphasizing the conversational aspects of Facebook and Twitter … not to say that all of his conversations are worth following or contributing to, but it is a core part of those experiences that Flipboard hasn't yet “revolutionized”.

  21. Robert – You gave me “the teaser” about this at MobileBeat 2010 which raised my curiosity.

    After seeing it, I have to say that it lives up to the hype :)

    Great video.

    John

  22. Yes, every internet page is fundamentally the same as page in a magazine or book. We can only read it while it's still. We look at it in a frame the size of our device. With this app we touch the device to enliven a page or get a new page and that is nothing new. We this app we see our content laid out according to an algorithm that is predicated upon our user authority — selection. Again nothing new.

  23. I've always thought RSS feeds were under used.
    The RSS Reader is not mass market, but there are lots of things you can do with good structured content. I think this is one of the first projects that I've seen that uses RSS well.

  24. Just a clarification here. Flipboard doesn't just *look* at the RSS to find out how much content to show from a publisher. That is where they get their content.
    They follow the bit.ly link, then look for an RSS feed and pull in the content from the RSS feed.
    They do *not* scrap the page for content.

    If they were to offer another way for content providers to determine how much content to show they would have to change their tech quite a bit.

    Just an observation.

  25. This is REALLY interesting. I had someone show it to me today with my Tweets on it and I think what is most interesting is the element of high design and readability. It gives you the emotion of a paper or article, but using the stream format. Love to watch this evolve.

  26. So I downloaded the app and played with it last night, not having read any of the press about it yet – it didn't hit me at all as a twitter/FB client. I added my accounts and spent all of 2 minutes flipping through them before spending an hour reading the other panels. Likely because my FB and twitter feeds are primarily social and not news-based.
    To me, Flipboard is like Pulse 2.0 – it's far more optimized for browsing large amounts of articles. In the hour I spent browsing it, I could easily see it becoming my top ipad app (the spot currently held by Fluent News). What remains to be seen is how new content is handled (IE – when I pick it up again tonight, what's it going to look like).

  27. I like it, I see it becoming one of my main news sources, but don't see it as a “killer app”. A killer app sells devices, big time. I don't see this impacting iPad sales in any notable way.

    However, Note Taker HD, combined with a Pogo Stylus, definitely has the potential to sell iPads. IT's a shame no one is talking it up. Coz everyone I show is gobsmacked by it. (Interestingly it is developed by Dan Bricklin, he of VisiCalc, the original killer app)

    I think, Robert, you spend to much time around the converted. I'd love to see you get out into the real world and find the who people aren't buying smartphones and ipads, and find out why. Why is technology missing them?

  28. I think the most important aspect is the aspect of ranking and ordering the content. cause its obvious that a lot of RTs (or FB likes) does’nt necessarily mean that this content is really the best. It just shows you where the mass is heading. and: isn’t the most important impulse to read the wish to find secret, new, inspiring, hidden, abandoned content – which is definitely content negated by search engines and semantic web crawlers — you know what I mean?

  29. Not really. It's one of the most powerful iOS devices out there. More portable than a laptop… Feels good to use… Gets me the envy of my friends… Yeah, it's soooo not worth it… /sarcasm

    Oh, and guess what? People are actually developing stuff for it!

    No one is developing anything for the big computers that we use. It's all going towards the iOS and Android devices.

  30. The iPad might suck, so did 1st gen iPhone. But it's the content, the stuff you actually can use it for, that matters.

    Android and Android powered phones are great. Content sucks.
    Linux OS is great. Content sucks.

    Get the picture? :)

  31. When i Saw the application, I said wow

    It is great to make your stream bigger, we updated our Twitter Feed of Yabbedoo into a Travel Magazine within minutes.
    Add a section and search Yabbedoo

    http://twitter.com/yabbedoo

  32. I think it's fantastic…but are there not copyright issues here? If there is a media backlash against google news, this seems to take it even further. If as I have read flipboard is digging deeper than an RSS feed, content providers will have serious issues. If they embed ads in their feeds, will flipboard prentice them? I doubt it.

  33. “how do you do it, do you have little midgets inside this that sets the typography like that?”

    WTF, haven’t you heard of CSS?