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.
Once 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.
Once 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 “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.
Unfortunately, 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…