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

7/23/10Follow @wroush

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“like” anything you find from within the app, share it by e-mail, or retweet it on Twitter. This enables iPad users to drive forward the whole virtuous cycle of creation and consumption, as Microsoft’s Pat Kinsel has described it here.

In addition to packaging up your customized Facebook and Twitter streams, Flipboard offers pre-selected content such as snippets from GigaOm, The Economist, or Y Combinator Hacker News. (Among the pre-selected sources are Kara Swisher’s blog, AllThingsD, and tech and world-news feeds curated by Robert Scoble.) Interestingly, none of this content is generated from RSS feeds, the traditional format for distributing articles around the Web. Instead, it’s all stuff that these publications have shared, and linked to, on Twitter.

It’s a little difficult to understand, just from reading about it, why using Flipboard feels so magical. If you’re accustomed to reading tweets on Twitter.com, reading Facebook updates on Facebook itself, and catching up on your Web news using a traditional RSS reader (or, heaven forbid, by surfing the actual Web), then you know what a jumble of interfaces you have to navigate every day. Some of these are better than others, and I’m on the record praising apps like NewsRack, an especially efficient RSS reader for the iPad. What’s so nice about Flipboard is the way it unifies your time-sensitive media streams and packages them up within a clean, simple, easy-to-navigate layout that makes clever use of the iPad’s multitouch interface.

For at least 15 years, tech visionaries have been writing about the concept of the personalized digital newspaper—MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte called it “The Daily Me.” Well, Flipboard is one of the first pieces of software that lives up to that dream. It actually reaches beyond that vision, by adding a social component that Negroponte and the Media Lab researchers who worked on early versions of the idea never imagined. The fact that Flipboard’s content is drawn from Twitter and Facebook feeds, not RSS, is the key here. You care about the articles that show up in the Twitter and Facebook sections of Flipboard because, by definition, they’re things that people in your own social network—not the editors of some far-off news publication—thought were interesting or important.

The Wall Street Journal's AllThingsD blog on FlipboardUnfortunately, I’m among the roughly 50 percent of iPad owners who downloaded the Flipboard app on Wednesday but have not yet been able to set up the Facebook and Twitter sections, so I couldn’t test those features myself before writing this. To deal with the crush of interest, Flipboard has been rushing to add more servers to its back-end infrastructure, and on Thursday it sent Apple a new version of the app that includes an invitation system. Now I’m waiting for the company to send me an e-mail giving me the all-clear to connect my account to Twitter and Facebook.

It’s obvious that Flipboard, despite its $10.5 million war chest from top-drawer investors like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, was unprepared for the load of interest generated by the Scoble and Swisher coverage. Impatience bordering on disgust with the company and its app was on widespread display this week on Twitter, in the iTunes App Store user reviews, and on Flipboard’s own support message boards. In an update on the Flipboard website yesterday, McCue, the former CEO of TellMe, apologized for the difficulties and said that the company had been beset by an “explosive rush of new users” that “has clearly been beyond our wildest expectations.”

But in one respect, Flipboard brought the “explosive rush” on itself by courting such well-known writers. And the capacity crisis is a bit perplexing. If, as McCue says in this Thursday interview with PE Hub, Flipboard is using Amazon Web Services to host its back-end, then it’s unclear how a lack of server resources could have been a problem. The very premise of AWS is that it’s relatively cheap and almost instantly, and infinitely, expandable. But maybe the explosion was too big for even Amazon to contain. (Indeed, Scoble’s own explanation for the debacle was that Flipboard didn’t choose to host its backend at Rackspace, his employer.)

[Update, 10:45 a.m., July 27, 2010: Amazon Web Services public relations manager Kay Kinton wrote to me with the following statement: "As I'm sure you know, there are a number of reasons that an application can be bottlenecked.  The user sign-up issues Flipboard experienced were not a result of its use of AWS as you suggest in your story. As demand for Flipboard increased, the company rapidly scaled its compute needs with AWS accordingly. We would appreciate that clarification for your readers. With the scale at which AWS operates, an explosive rush may be large for one customer but can be small relative to the many, many AWS customers and use cases."]

I’m just looking forward to trying all of Flipboard’s features for myself, and to watching as the company rolls out new ones. My own top request, feature-wise, would be for a far larger number of sections or channels on the main contents page—nine isn’t nearly enough. I’d also like to see Evernote sharing (which ought to be easy, given the recent rollout of the Evernote Trunk partner program) and the ability to subscribe to RSS feeds. I know that defeats the point of a “social” digital magazine, but the Flipboard interface is so nice that I’d love to be able to use it to power through my news feeds every morning. I also hope Flipboard puts some work into Android and other non-iPad versions of the app, as it’s an experience that should be available even to people who don’t buy into the Apple world-view.

But for now, I’m just awaiting that invitation e-mail. Any time now, guys…

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

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    OK Wade, now you’ve added your legions of loyal readers to the stacks of Scoble/Swisher followers to dive in and swarm Flipboard. I’ll give it a little time to settle down…but you definitely piqued my interest. It’s not often that you use the word “magical.” It might be good if you could post a quick update when they have settled down in a week or two (or more?)

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Hi Jules! I’ll definitely update this story, or write another one, after I’ve had a chance to try out Flipboard’s social features. As of now (11 am Friday) I’m still waiting for an invitation.

    As for the word “magical,” it’s cliche of course (especially now that Steve Jobs and Jony Ive have run it into the ground). But I really do agree with blogger Rory Marinich, who wrote that the iPad is “simply put, a magical screen that can do anything you ever want it to, no matter what that is.” I’m just looking forward to seeing what developers come up with over the next few months and years.

  • Richard Spector

    Wade,

    The Flipboard app is all that plus more. I am an early adopter of some of today’s hottest “social / news feed apps.” I really like this app. Easy to use but I have a strong feeling that this is still the beta version. It seems buggy and a bit slow. Graphically it is just amazing but some things just don’t work or don’t work well. I do have facebook and twitter working. The odd thing about facebook though is Flipboard pulls data from the status updates and organizes them by date of posting. Well when I go back to a previous day in which I have already viewed the content via Flipboard low and behold new ones will appear from that day. Its as if Flipboard missed some status updates and went back and harvested them for posting at a later time. All in all a great app with tons of potential and I am glad its free for now. Any idea how they plan to make money at this?

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