Can Flipboard beautify the digital world?

What would happen if we could have a “do over” for the internet? Imagine that we could keep all of the technology we have now – netbooks, smartphones, tablets, etc. – and re-make the way we interact with the digital world from the ground up. What would happen if we designed it as a wholly new experience, instead of being partially bound by markup languages written in 1997? The answer, according to entrepreneur Mike McCue, is Flipboard.

McCue says that the inspiration to create the popular app came to him when he was buying magazines to read on an airplane. He noticed that, for all of print media’s shortcomings, it still had a leg up on digital media in one important respect: aesthetics.  Print as a medium had the advantage of simplicity; all the content in a magazine appears the same to every reader because, well, that’s how printing works- you print something out, you sell it to people and they read it. Compare that with web design, where how a website appears (and if it even appears at all) is contingent on the user’s browser version, operating system, screen size and any number of other factors outside the content producer’s control. The web isn’t ugly by design- it’s ugly because that’s the only way to make it work.

It was around this time that the first rumors appeared about a new tablet device Apple was calling “magical and revolutionary,” and when the iPad launched in January of 2010, McCue knew he had found his medium. In July of the same year, Flipboard went live in the App Store and promised to be the first “social magazine,” merging print-like aesthetics and content organization with digital speed and social media content-sharing.

The final product looks like a cross between the iPad’s home screen and a remarkably well-organized scrapbook:

Flipboard's Home Screen

Users have the ability to choose between hundreds of feeds in a dozen different categories, with choices ranging from The Harvard Business Review and al Jazeera to Motor Trend and Harper’s Bazaar. The idea is to let users create their own experience by aggregating content from many different providers and centralizing all of it under a single simple interface. The content from each provider is typically kept separate from other sources and is presented in a unique interface which is clean, intuitive and, yes, even beautiful:

But design is only one part of Flipboard’s appeal- another major selling point for the app is its integration with social media. Users can integrate Flipboard with the standard array of social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.) and use it to share what they’re reading with their friends.

As for its business model, Flipboard has a more conventional approach relying on in-app advertisements. In July of last year, they announced a major partnership with publishing giant Condé Nast which would both bring content from popular magazines like The New Yorker to the app and split resulting ad revenues between Flipboard and Condé Nast. This came on the heels of a similar partnership with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, and the approach is clearly working- in its last round of fundraising over a year ago (before these deals were even announced), Flipboard was valued at a staggering $200 million.

I’m an avid user of Flipboard and can honestly say that the app really does provide the pseudo-tactile “feel” of paper while also providing a simple and elegant user experience I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. But that’s not to say the app is devoid of faults. The interface often breaks down with certain content providers (directing users to an article through their browser instead of pulling the content into the app) and the social media component is a bit… annoying. Maybe it’s just me (and I keep getting the impression that it is), but I’ve found that the integration of social media into news creates more of a hassle than a benefit, and Flipboard certainly isn’t an exception. The articles tagged as “most popular on Flipboard” crowd out other stories in each feed and, in my opinion, really detract from the experience. For all its social intelligence, Flipboard can’t seem to figure out that I’m not browsing BBC News to read, for example, an outdated trend piece about French people doing parkour, even if that’s apparently what a lot of Flipboard users are looking for.

Even so, Flipboard is, by and large, a huge step forward. It’s managed to merge the tablet-optimized designs of apps like The Daily with the high-quality content of both old and new media.  It’s an almost-perfect merger of style and substance and, with any luck, it might be the future of digital content delivery.

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One Response to Can Flipboard beautify the digital world?

  1. Julia Averbuck says:

    Nate, I agree that Flipboard is great, but in this post you present it as if it were super unique. I think what’s missing from this article is a contextualization of Flipboard with the competition, such as Zite and Pulse. While Flipboard is riding the tech investment trend (can anyone say bubble?), Zite was actually bought by CNN, who trusted that its business model was sound. Unlike Flipboard, Zite also prioritizes new content as opposed to what people are reading.

    Don’t get me wrong – I like Flipboard a lot, I just don’t think its as unique as it comes off here.

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