Flipboard, the newsreading app that has amassed 50 million monthly users on mobile devices, arrives today on the web. On the bigger screen, Flipboard is big, beautiful, and responsive. In moving to the desktop, Flipboard hopes to open up a big new avenue of distribution. But can a mobile app like Flipboard win millions of new fans on the web, or is the company building for the past?
"This is a very retro thing we’re doing," Flipboard CEO Mike McCue tells me, when I stop by the company’s offices in Palo Alto. The company is moving onto the web at a time when most media companies are preaching the gospel of "mobile first." But in fact, the web was Flipboard’s original destination. Five years ago, when McCue and co-founder Evan Doll started the company, they sought to build an app that would cure what McCues calls "the information overload problem." The solution was a highly visual evolution of RSS that brought a user’s chosen interests together in a single place.
"This is a very retro thing we're doing."
The only trouble was, browsers in 2009 had a hell of a time with the product Flipboard was building. "I was getting somewhat despondent about how that was beginning to play out," McCue says. "Then I started hearing about these rumors of the tablet."
The tablet, of course, was the iPad, and the Flipboard was among its earliest and best-loved third-party apps. The idea for Flipboard evolved from solving information overload to "the personalized magazine." It was still a highly visual experience, but Flipboard gave it the look and feel of something most people were already familiar with. You navigated by flipping, just as you would turn the pages in a magazine. The app was an instant hit, and as Flipboard came to the iPhone and to Android phones and tablets, it acquired more than 100 million registered users. (It also made a tentative move onto the web: two years ago, the company experimented with coding user-created magazines in HTML 5.)
From flipping to scrolling
The first thing you notice about Flipboard on the web is that you don’t flip it. Instead, you scroll. "We tried flipping on the web," says Didier Hilhorst, product designer at Flipboard. "Because you’re not touching the screen, it feels unnatural." It’s a small thing, but the fact that Flipboard uses scrolling on the web tells you something about its design philosophy. "We realized we needed to stay true to what the web is about," Hilhorst says.
When you log in to Flipboard on the web, the first thing you’ll see are your "cover stories," the day’s big news, as sorted by Flipboard. (This assumes you already have an account; if you don’t, the app will help you pick some topics to get started.) Scroll down the page and you’ll see stories from the people, publications, topics, and Flipboard magazines that you follow. Stories are arranged in a nicely varied grid that alternates between small clusters of stories and big, full-bleed photos. Click an individual link and it opens the original web page in its own tab. Or you can "flip" the story into your own magazine; Flipboard says its users have created 15 million of these collections, up from 10 million magazines in October. And you won’t find just text articles: Flipboard embeds videos and sound clips as well.
The resulting product is a bit of a mutant. At times, particularly when you’re flipping stories into "magazines," Flipboard can feel like a kind of Pinterest for articles. At other times, when you’re skimming the publications you read daily to see what you missed, it can feel more like an RSS reader. "RSS is a good broadcast mechanism — but it’s not personalized," McCue says. "You can’t remix a bunch of stuff together to create a new list of articles about a topic. We’ve leveraged (RSS) but gone past it." And at its best, when the combination of your interests and Flipboard’s algorithms are working in harmony, it really can feel like a personalized magazine.
Flipboard can be overwhelming
Flipboard also shares the drawbacks of many RSS readers: the sense of being totally overwhelmed at the sheer volume of items in your reader. One nice thing about physical magazines is that they end — you can often start and finish one in a single sitting. Last year Flipboard acquired Zite, a magazine app with deep personalization technology, and used it to populate the 34,000 topics you can now follow. (I complained about the acquisition rather loudly.) In theory, Zite’s technology allows you to dive deep on your most obscure interests; in practice, it feels like an infinite stack of articles that happen to contain whichever keyword you searched for, regardless of their quality or relevance.
McCue says his goal with Flipboard is to give readers "the latest and greatest" — that is, the most recent news, and the most interesting articles you might have missed otherwise. And the company puts together a daily publication of curated news articles, known as the Daily Edition, to provide an at-a-glance look at the day for anyone who feels overwhelmed by all that content.
More distressingly, with Flipboard you also lose the vibrant editorial voice of individual magazines. A good magazine gains power from which stories it writes and photos it publishes, and guides you through them with confidence and purpose. In Flipboard’s hands, however beautiful the whole may look, your favorite magazines are reduced to an undifferentiated slurry of content. "A lot of the things that people who put together magazines think about, we’re trying to do at scale through algorithms," McCue says. Good luck with that.
For now, Flipboard for the web won’t carry ads, though that’s the eventual plan. In the meantime, the company is hoping that the web will help it draw millions of more users. Hosting links to stories on Flipboard.com will help draw in readers through search results, McCue says. And everything on Flipboard can be shared on social networks. "We think there’s a whole bunch of people there that we haven’t really tapped into," he says. The desktop web’s best days may be behind it, but Flipboard is betting there’s a big future in it.