Springpad Upgrades Digital Notebook App for Sharing, Discovery, and Persistence

4/11/12Follow @gthuang

If you’re interested in the growth of consumer Web companies in the Boston area, you should know the team at Spring Partners. And if you have deeper questions about how the Web will evolve beyond search and social, well, you should really check out what they’re building.

Charlestown, MA-based Spring Partners is announcing version 3.0 of its Springpad app today, available for free on the Web and in the Android and Apple app stores. Springpad lets users create online, collaborative “notebooks” that help them save and share ideas and information about whatever interests them: books, movies, recipes, gadgets, restaurants, home furnishings, shoes, you name it.

What’s new this time is the collaborative and discovery aspect of the app, whereby you can follow recommendations from your friends—organized by topics (see screenshot below)—or keep track of home decorating ideas with your spouse, say, using a shared notebook that includes comments, photos of furniture choices, and so forth. The overarching idea of the new app is to “share and discover with those you trust,” says Spring Partners co-founder Jeff Janer.

For example, if you’re looking for book or movie suggestions from certain friends whose tastes align with yours, you can create a “springpad” and invite them to contribute their recommendations. Then you can stay in touch with them with shared notes, references, and other interactions around the books in your list.

“This is social for knowledge sharing, not for conversations or transactions,” says Jeff Chow, the company’s co-founder and CEO (after a recent shuffling of duties within the management team). He adds that instead of just building a social app for social’s sake, “we focus on utility first, and then make it social.”

Since its first version in 2008, Springpad has evolved from a digital filing system focused on niche areas like cooking and parenting to a personal organizer/assistant, and now a content-sharing platform. Along the way, the company has found the concept of a “smart notebook” to be its key organizing principle. The new version of Springpad seems like a natural evolution of its advances in recent years—which include pulling in data from outside sources (like Netflix, Amazon, and OpenTable) to help drive purchases, as well as integrating with Facebook “likes” and check-ins to help users connect with their social network.

But let’s step back for a minute. With their new app, Chow and Janer are, in effect, talking about slicing the social graph along an entirely different axis. Instead of following certain people (who don’t share your tastes in all things), or getting bombarded by a never-ending stream of tweets, updates, ads, or stories (call them what you want), users of Springpad now can navigate the digital world by their topics of interest—with help from people who share those interests.

The deeper idea here is that of stripping out time from the social equation. Instead of struggling to keep up with the latest post-of-the-minute, users can go to an app where information is sorted by topics and curated by friends—and where things do change over time, of course, but at a pace more relevant to their lifestyle. “This is a way to retain information so I get it when I’m ready,” Chow says. “It’s there when I look for it. It’s persistent.”

Ah, digital persistence. That fleeting notion most of us gave up once we started trying to juggle the demands of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media while still holding down a job (don’t get me started on the news cycle). Well, a lot of innovators haven’t given up; that’s why we’re seeing a new crop of micro-social networks, online pinboards, timelines, and other apps that surface relevant information that the Web is so good at storing, but so bad at helping us organize and access in a coherent way.

All of this is particularly interesting in light of Facebook’s $1 billion purchase of Instagram, the photo-sharing mobile app startup. “The Instagram acquisition—and Pinterest for that matter—speak to the same trends of social discovery and curation from those you trust as we’re focused on in addition to collaboration,” says Janer.

So, if we think of the evolution of consumer behavior on the Web as—very broadly speaking—moving from search (Google) to sharing (Facebook) to something new, what is that something new?

“I think it’s action,” Chow says. “It’s task completion—doing research, reading a book, or cooking something.” Right now there is still a big gap between getting information on the Web and using it to do things efficiently, he says. “Search is not a decision engine,” Chow adds. “And social today is not enhancing discovery.”

That’s where the Springpad guys think their app can catch fire. They aren’t the only ones going after a big piece of the pie, of course, and time will tell whether the new app resonates with users. But the former Third Screen Media veterans have been around long enough to know they have to keep trying new approaches to see what pops.

To date, Springpad has grown quickly and steadily, but not virally. The app has more than 3 million users, most of them accessing it via both the Web and mobile devices. (Janer says 75 percent of Springpad’s user registrations originate from mobile app stores.) The company, which has 17 employees, took in $4 million from Fairhaven Capital back in 2008 and says it will probably look to raise more money later this year.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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