Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is Flipboard a magazine? Some may have doubts, but readers will be the judge, once Flipboard fixes their app

Using technology to create your own personalized "magazine" is the goal of a new app in the iTunes app store Flipboard. Created by ex-Tellme CEO Mike McCue and former Apple iPhone engineer Evan Doll, Flipboard claims that users that it is the "world's first social magazine" -- clearly taking a lesson from Apple that using words like "first" or "magical" is the essence of creating good hype.
But for an iPad app created by tech noted people it is ironic that the app itself is currently a bust.

The look is sleek and many app makers could certainly learn a thing or two about app navigation, page turning and creation from these guys. Nonetheless, the selling point of Flipboard is that you can add your Facebook and Twitter account to the app to share content -- but the feature currently does not work leading to many complaints from app downloaders. But those who are able to get the app to perform as promised have been enthusiastic.

Flipboard offers readers a great layout and app internals, then lets readers add content from their own Facebook and Twitter accounts, personalizing content and thus the "magazine" itself".

“With over 1 billion messages posted every day, social networks are quickly becoming the primary way people discover and share content on the Web. The result is a huge influx of incoming messages and links people must sort through across multiple web sites just to stay up to date,” Mike McCue, Flipboard╩╝s CEO, said in its release.

Robert Andrews from paidContent says, though, that Flipboard is not a "magazine". "A magazine is published at set intervals and can be finished," Andrews proclaims. Thanks for playing Robert. Next!

PC World's Jared Newman is equally dismissive, proclaiming that the app is "part revolution, part ridiculous" --- though to be fair that may have been the headline writer's view. Newman's beef is that the concept begins to fail "when the social feeds are vapid," stating that "it'll take a skilled user to filter what's really important." (I can hear the laughs from all those aggregation companies now.)

Constantly updated content and personalization may frighten some media writers, but is certainly the future of many tablet publishing projects and Flipboard is attempting to offer one of the first examples of this. What Flipboard doesn't offer (besides a functioning app, of course) is a point-of-view. Instead it wants the user to provide this.

This will be the apps biggest weakness, but here I am not coming from an editorial perspective.

Instead, how can a new tablet magazine that allows readers to personalize the content differentiate itself from other similar apps? What the developers offer is a nice look (and hopefully in the future functioning technology), but the barrier to entry is low because other developers can duplicate the code, other designers can create new and similarly attractive looks, and what will the developers of Flipboard be left with except a me-too app?

Left: the content pages from Flipboard; Middle: where readers can add personalized content from their own accounts on social networking sites;
Right: where readers are told they can not add content from their own accounts on social networking sites. Oh well.

In a battle of publications the winner will be those that are best edited, and best sold. Old media folk generally understand the first concept but are forgetting about the second one. New media folk seen to understand the first concept and have never heard of, or deny the second.

My guess is that Flipboard will concentrate on building a user base then will worry about monetizing their magazine later through advertising. Although the app is free, the founders of Flipboard are well funded meaning they can work to build an audience first before worrying about a business model. The alternative approach that many others are taking is to charge a minimal amount for the app, say 99 cents or $1.99, then worry about other revenue streams later. The problem with the approach is that iPad owners generally don't like to pay for something then get hit with advertising. But I think publications may be a special exception to this rule, though we will see.

In any case, an electronic publication that can offer both personalized, constantly updated content, and the input of an editor is bound to be a winner. It is, after all, the idea behind much of the aggregation currently being done by newspapers experimenting with vendors such as Outside.In. They are not eliminating their own copy, just augmenting it with additional aggregated content.

In the end, adding Facebook and Twitter generated content to a tablet publication is a technical question, not necessarily an editorial question -- at least if you are coming at it from Flipboard's perspective and not the perspective an obviously concerned editor.

Flipboard is backed by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) and Index Ventures and is based in Palo Alto which pretty much tells you all your need to know about where they are coming from. This not a media start-up so much as a tech start-up that is in the media field (follow me there?).

Let's face it, this is where the new media money is going to come from. Talking to the old media financial companies appears to be a waste of time -- they don't seem to get where media is going, and unless they see that a media property already has revenue and people to be laid off, they just aren't interested in investing.

(Sadly, I have personal experience with this, having approached several of the old New York based media bankers recently about picking up some of RBIs titles and transforming them into new media ventures. Not surprisingly, many of the RBI titles have been forced to partner with other media firms that are hardly new media savvy, pretty much ending their chances at success.)

Flipboard's obligatory YouTube demonstration video.

When you look at KPCB's portfolio you will not find any traditional media companies there. What I am sure attracted the firm to Flipboard was the words "Apple" and "app", not "magazine" or "advertising".

Because of this funding issue, it is companies like Flipboard that have the best chance of launching new media ventures -- that is, companies founded on app development, not media expertise. This situation existed back in the nineties, as well. In the end, some of the new Internet companies formed were bought out by media companies as a way of those companies gaining web expertise. The results, of course, were mixed. But while most of the new Internet companies that were not bought out folded, many pure plays survived, of course.

That is why I have aggressively pushed the concept that media companies need to develop their own application development capabilities. One, this may be the bait for investment companies to take a look at you; two, you will need this capability to create customized mobile and tablet apps -- right now third parties want you to buy into a one-size-fits-all approach similar to what flipbook vendors have pushed for the past few years.

(I am still waiting to see Zinio's first branded app appear because this may change my mind about this issue. Sporting News tells me that they are still on schedule to release their Zinio produced branded app by the end of summer. Handmark, too, is still to release its first iPad news app, will they take a cookie-cutter approach or will they create customized apps?)

Flipboard has $10.5 million to play with (man, I'd love to be in their shoes) so I would not bet against them. But first they need to fix their app, right?