When the social reading outfit Flipboard–which put out a hot iPad app last year–debuted its iPhone version last week, the demand crashed their servers. A week later, Flipboard’s racked up a million downloads and tripled their engagement (measured in “flips per month”). Did they see this coming? “I think we might have been dreaming that something (like this) might happen,” Flipboard’s head of design Marcos Weskamp says, “But we weren’t expecting it.”
In a quickly crowding e-news magazine space, Flipboard stands out as a (very pretty) straight-up social reader, and is consistently growing the number of social networks streams that it swallows. (They now feed off eight different social networks.) With the new iPhone app, they want to connect with a different kind of news reader, one who’s on the move, in the subway, or in a checkout line at the shoe store.
Their new iPhone app carries a new feature that’s at the heart of Flipboard’s plan for the future. It’s called Cover Stories, and is a semi-curated stream of stories shared across all your social networks. Say you go camping (or enter the subway) and are thus web-less for a while. When you get connected again, Cover Stories will surface the top content that’ll quickly fill you in on what you missed. “Cover Stories is the promise of what Flipboard is,” Weskamp says. “That’s where we want you to spend most of your time.” Cover Stories, and content organization with that same spirit, is going to be Flipboard’s trump card to make sure it stays ahead of the competition.
Flipboard, like Zite and Google Currents and several other reader apps, makes it very easy to read collected content from all your favorite publications. Cover Stories is also the first time Flipboard is using algorithms to curate content from your social networks, learning as you use it, as Zite and Google Currents do. But Evan Doll, Flipboard cofounder, says their real goal is not to bring you “cold, unsocial news.” Though they may be dipping into algorithms, social news remains their strength, and their focus for the future. “Every industry, every type of business we think about needs to be fundamentally reinvented in the face of social,” Doll says. “Social isn’t a type of layer you slap on after the fact–it needs to be part of the product at the point of inception.” And at the center of that social experience is the Flipboard user. “We’re really focused on you,” Weskamp says.
That sentiment bleeds into their minimalistic design philosophy–no chrome, barely any buttons–Flipboard wants to stay the hell out of your way. A layout wins, Weskamp explains, when “the design disappears and all you see is the content that you care about.” Part of Flipboard’s visceral appeal is that you’re interacting directly with a story on the screen. On the iPad you peel, crease, and “flip” from story to story on the app, as you would with a real magazine. The flipboard team reworked that so that the same effect could be achieved with just a single digit. “For the iPhone we knew that if you had to use it right, we had to make it usable with only your thumb,” Weskamp says. The vertical flipping gesture on the iPhone app came after months of iterations, until the experience “felt just right.”
Flipboard’s competitor, Zite, launched their iPhone app within days of Flipboard’s iOS launch. When we spoke to Zite’s CEO Mark Johnson, he was enthused by the recent growth in new aggregators. But, noting the crowd, he also said, “I mean, only two or three of us are going to survive.”
Hoping to be one of them, Flipboard is pitting its personal touch and dandy display against the algorithmic smarts of Zite and Google Currents.