Flipboard, Off to a Shaky Start, Could Still Grow Into One of Tablet Computing’s Killer Apps

[Updated, see page 2] Say a reviewer goes to a performance of the latest Broadway extravaganza, and the elaborate stage machinery breaks down before the show even starts, forcing everyone to go home. This actually happened to me once, at a showing of Sunset Boulevard in New York. It probably wouldn’t be fair for the reviewer to write his piece based on this disastrous non-performance.

I’m in an analogous situation with Flipboard, the Palo Alto, CA, startup that released an ambitious “social magazine” app for the Apple iPad this week and was almost immediately overwhelmed by technical problems. But I’m going to go ahead and write my review anyway. I’ll tell you why. On a tactical level, there are some interesting lessons for other startups in the way Flipboard has handled, or rather mishandled, the app’s launch. But more importantly, even the crippled version of the Flipboard app that I’ve been testing is pretty cool. It begins to deliver on some of the enormous, but still largely untapped, potential that many people see in the iPad.

Flipboard on the Apple iPadOnce Flipboard has overcome its launch-week fiasco, its software could earn a place as one of the gadget’s killer apps. Several of these are likely to emerge over the next year as developers continue to test-drive the device and figure out amazing, wholly surprising new applications for it. That’s sure to drive sales of iPads well pass the current 3.2 million mark, and could boost demand for competing tablet devices as well.

What is Flipboard designed to do? You can get a good introduction from the company’s marketing video, and from accounts from bloggers such as Robert Scoble and Kara Swisher who were given exclusive previews of the app. (It was partly their rave reviews that touched off the avalanche of signups Wednesday, overwhelming Flipboard’s servers and forcing the company to put in place an invitation system to throttle down the rate at which the app accepts new users.)

In essence, you can think of Flipboard as a wastewater treatment plant for your social-media accounts. It sucks up the flotsam-filled stream of information confronting heavy users of Twitter, Facebook, and the Web. Then, by exploiting some valuable old principles of print magazine design, it re-emits the material in a form that makes browsing all those updates far more appetizing.

The Flipboard contents screenOnce you’ve given Flipboard your Twitter and Facebook credentials, the app pulls in tweets and status updates from everyone you follow. Which is exactly what popular apps like Tweetdeck or Seesmic do. But then Flipboard goes several steps further. To start, it arranges your incoming updates on the iPad screen in an attractive magazine-like format, with the tweets or updates themselves presented as headlines. If the tweets or updates contain links to Web pages, images, or videos, the app automatically downloads excerpts from those materials as well, and appends them to the headlines as if they were article text and illustrations. To scan backward in time, you simply flip from page to page of these “articles” with a swiping motion.

When you touch one of the “articles” to open it, you can see a bit more of the original text from the linked source. Exactly how much text appears depends on the policies of the original publisher, according to Flipboard CEO and co-founder Mike McCue. If you want to explore further and surf to the original source, Flipboard will open an in-app Web browser and take you there. You can also … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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