By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 9:01 pm
When social-magazine app Flipboard debuted on the iPad in July of last year, it instantly became the closest thing yet to a defining app for Apple’s new program–a beautifully-done program that was beautifully tailored to the platform’s strengths. It was hard to imagine it running on any other device.
Starting now, you don’t need to try and imagine what it might be like elsewhere: Flipboard is arriving on the iPhone. It should be available on the App Store around the time this post goes live.
I got a tour of the new app last week from Mike McCue, the company’s cofounder, and have been using it for the past few days. If you’re a fan of the iPad edition, you’ll be pleased with the iPhone one. And I bet a lot of iPhone owners who are new to Flipboard are going to go gaga for it.
At first blush, the iPhone version looks very much like its older, bigger iPad brother–they both sport among the slickest, most thoughtful interfaces you’ll ever see on a mobile app. The features for finding and adding sections of content–from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks, as well as from news sites, blogs, and other sources–are just about identical in both versions. And everything syncs up, so people who use the app on their phone and tablet have the same sections in both places.
But the Flipboard folks had to rethink many fundamentals to make the program work well on a phone–starting with the very act of flipping “pages” that gives the app its name. On the iPad, you flip horizontally; on the iPhone, you flip vertically, as if you were rifling through the cards in a Rolodex. (McCue told me me that it’s a more natural, comfy action to perform with your thumb.)
On the iPad, Flipboard has enough real estate to reformat Web content in ways that almost always leaves it looking better than it did in the first place–especially in the case of stuff from publishers that Flipboard has partnered with, such as the National Geographic, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic. It does an excellent job on the iPhone, too, but the smaller screen necessitates a simpler, one-column approach that only works in portrait orientation. Occasionally, items that work wonderfully on the iPad are a tad more ungainly on the iPhone–for instance, some National Geographic photo galleries have captions that oveflow onto a second page.
Like before, Flipboard’s presentation of content varies from source to source: Sometimes you get custom-designed pages, sometimes you get ones that have been automatically streamlined (looking a bit like they do in Instapaper), and sometimes you get the original Web version. In that last case, the app is at the mercy of the original site’s designers, and not every site has a version that works well on an iPhone. Mostly, though, reading on Flipboard is very pleasant: It’s certainly an upgrade from Mobile Safari.
(I did find a few instances where stories were misformatted–whether or not this was a Flipboard issue or something awry at the originating site, I couldn’t tell.)
Until now, unlike competitors such as Zite, Flipboard hasn’t used any algorithmic magic to figure out what stories you might like to read. Instead, it’s relied on human beings to pick stuff–including your friends on Facebook and Twitter, editors and others associated with the Web sites whose feeds are available in Flipboard, and a small team at the company itself. The approach has worked well: The articles and other items that show up in Flipboard appeal at least as much to me as ones collected by algorithms in other apps.
But now Flipboard is starting to use computer science to help find stuff, too. Using technology from the Ellerdale Project, a startup that the company acquired last year, it’s given the iPhone app a section called Cover Stories that attempts to pull together a variety of stories based on a deeper analysis of your social connections and your interaction with Flipboard content. The more you read, the smarter it’s supposed to get about its picks.
Based on a few days with the iPhone app, I didn’t notice Cover Stories being radically more fascinating than other sections of Flipboard, but they did contain some worthwhile items. McCue told me that the company plans to beef up the algorithmic technology in future editions–for instance, to use it to cluster related stories–and to add it to the iPad version. (Cover Stories, along with a few other new features such as support for Tumblr accounts, are iPhone-only at the moment.)
The list of apps that Flipboard competes with was already long on the iPad, and the new iPhone version only makes it lengthier. Among the iPhone apps that feel like rivals in one way or another are Float, News 360, Pulse, and Taptu. Flipboard for the iPhone doesn’t render any of them obsolete, in part because most of them emphasize well-organized news content, while Flipboard is willfully eclectic and more deeply tied into your relationships on social networks. In a single Flipboard session, for instance, you might check out some breaking news, read an offbeat feature or two from a site you don’t know, and enjoy a bunch of photos taken by both friends and strangers; that’s what makes it different and delightful.
As on the iPad, however, the new version’s overall polish and ingenuity raises the bar for apps of all kinds–a welcome characteristic it shares with the new version of Path. And now that we know what Flipboard is like on the iPhone, I have a new question to wonder about: What might it look like on other platforms? McCue didn’t have any news in that department. But he told me that it’s a subject the company will be pondering now that the iPhone version is finished.