Qwiki Hits the iPad

4/20/11Follow @wroush

You haven’t used Qwiki, the multimedia reference service bankrolled by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, until you’ve tried it on the iPad.

The San Francisco startup announced this morning that Apple has approved the new mobile version of its “rich media narrative” technology for distribution through the iTunes App Store. Owners of iPads can download the free app now.

Qwiki had little choice but to build a native iPad app if it wanted the growing legions of iPad owners to explore its site. The Web version of the site doesn’t work in the iPad’s Safari browser because it’s built around Flash—the Adobe multimedia format that Apple has banned from its iOS mobile operating system.

But now all of the same functions that Qwiki offers at the site—Web images, videos, Wikipedia text mixed into short slide shows narrated by a friendly computer voice—are available on the iPad. In fact, the app actually improves on the site by adding maps and other features tailored for the tablet platform.

I got a preview of the iPad version of Qwiki launch party at the company’s new SoMa headquarters last week, and it was a bit of a conversion experience. Whenever I find interesting resources like Qwiki that are designed for the desktop Web, my heart sinks a little, because I’m really not looking for more reasons to spend time using my PC. Whenever possible, I’m trying to offload tasks to my iPad, which makes both work tasks like e-mail management and leisure activities like Web surfing more pleasurable.

And Qwiki is the rare example of a Web resource that works even better as a native iOS app than as a Web service. Watching the mini-slide-shows, pausing to examine the individual images, and swiping to surf between “Qwikis” (the company’s name for the shows) via the built-in Google Maps feels smooth and natural on a touchscreen—so much so that it’s hard to go back to the Web version.

In fact, Qwiki now feels like it was conceived for the iPad, which is a tribute to Greg Pape, the Qwiki iOS engineer who built the app. I met Pape at the Qwiki party, and he confessed to being a bit of a map junkie. As soon as he’d finished the app, he says, he spent half a day simply browsing the world map to see what Qwikis existed for obscure places like the islands off Antarctica.

At the moment, the three million Qwikis in the company’s growing database correspond closely to the contents of Wikipedia, which is also the source of text narrated by the computer voice. But the grand vision for Qwiki, according to CEO and co-founder Doug Imbruce, is to make the service into something like the Daily Me: the future digital newspaper that, in a vision laid out in the mid-1990s by MIT Media lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, would be full of personalized content and would anticipate an individual reader’s needs and interests.

The iPad app moves in that direction by making Qwiki’s content accessible on a new platform, and by adding an awareness of the user’s current location to the mix. “The app is the first step toward fulfilling the company’s vision of creating a consistent information experience across multiple platforms,” Imbruce said in the company’s announcement today.

Qwiki, which was co-founded by Imbruce, AltaVista creator Louis Monier, and actor Gregory Smith, relocated from Palo Alto to a 6,000-square-foot warehouse space on Bryant Street in March, shortly after obtaining $8 million in Series A financing. In addition to Saverin, the company has won backing from individual investors Jawed Karim and Pradeep Sindhu and institutional investors Lerer Media Ventures, Tugboat Ventures, Contour Venture Partners, and Lightbank.

Here’s a video on Qwiki for iPad, produced by the company.

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

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