Flipboard: The product is great, the hyperbole is grating

flipboardFlipboard is a creative and beautifully crafted iPad app that performs something you can do dozens of ways (use RSS, APIs of Twitter and Facebook, et al and content scraped from websites to deliver a flow of news and information), but Flipboard does it in a new and beautiful way: in a graphically rich, smartly engineered and refreshingly serendipitous fashion. The metaphor they use for this display is “magazine” but unlike many online website publishers who use the magazine metaphor, but with little in common with the paper-based medium, Flipboard actually captures some of the essence of a magazine experience (but it won’t find a place on your coffee-table).

But there is a “flip” side to the recent launch of Flipboard that has the potential of derailing the app as envisioned with the first generation version the founders and backers used to launch the company (note to those who will misinterpret what I just said: I didn’t say the company could fail, I said specifically that the current concept of what the product Flipboard “is” and “does” could be derailed).

The creators of the well-received and impressive product blundered right out of the gate with a strategy that seems influenced and engineered by experienced and deep-pocketed “veterans” who are convinced the only way to succeed is to instantly create a market for something the market didn’t know existed, and to instantly capture 100% of its market-share before others figure out what’s hit them. That’s the way people who have been around the block a few times think. (And, frankly, who am I to argue with their billions?)

However, I have seen lots of great web-based and media ideas come and go, and almost always, the big ones started out small and work out the kinks at the stage of a product’s life where you’ve stopped limiting its access to those who are pre-disposed to tell you everything you want to hear. Flipboard failed technically on its first day of wide release by not anticipating the scale necessary to respond to a multi-front tsunami from early “tire-kickers” (never, never confuse people who sign up after a Scobelizer post or TechCrunch article with “adopters” — they’re love-em-and-leave-em early “sign-uppers”).* I’ll skip a sidebar on this topic, and simply encourage you to read Rework.

Another trap the company is falling into is trying to talk its way out of the scrutiny and push-back that comes with massive hoopla by responding to it with well-rehearsed but remarkably unbelievable verbage. Here’s what I mean: In an interview that appears on the website Business Insider, the company’s co-founder and CEO was asked the following, and provided this response:

Flipboard pulls in a lot of text and a lot of photos from online publishers. What do you say to people who say you’re stealing content?

Answer: Actually, there have been probably about 130 publishers that have reached out to us in the last 4 days or so, and unanimously the reaction has been very positive. People want to work with us, partner with us, do Flipboard-optimized content and feature their content in our sections. It’s been universally positive. These publishers basically include all the big guys. If any publishers are at all concerned about the way were using Readability to get the content, or if they feel were showing too much content, it’s very easy for us in a server file to dial that down and do something that they’re more comfortable with.

First off, anyone who has ever talked with — or even heard of — 130 publishers know there is no such thing as a “unanimous” and “universally positive” response to anything, much less to a product that is even remotely associated with something they may be working on, say, an app on which they’ve bet the future of their company. Such bold-faced hyperbole does nothing but sink ones credibility with companies they must work with over the long run.

Secondly, anything that smacks of implying that you know better than the publisher what can “help them” or “save them” may have worked 15 years ago, but forget it today. (The dilemma of trying to use a playbook from a game played a couple of seasons ago.)

The last thing is this. If you don’t think big publishers are going to react negatively to the way Flipbook is trying to draft off magazine brands and content, then you haven’t seen such “recommended sections” as the one pictured above: “New Yorker Writers.” Collecting feeds and content posted on a wide array of websites by writers who have had their work appear in the New Yorker, and then packaging it up in a “social magazine” section called “New Yorker Writers” is not the kind of approach that will receive “universally positive response” from publishers. (See photo above.)

Good luck, guys. I think your app is wonderful. But your key to success will be how you pivot away from the “scraping” practices and “we’re here to save publishing, not compete with it” BS. Your success will come from being honest with publishers, working with them in ways that do something more than hollow-sounding decade-old spin.

*At last count, that sentence mixed about 3-4 metaphors.

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  • Rex: while you are right, it’s amazing that none of those publishers have called anyone in the press to come forward and explain how Flipboard is so evil. In fact I’ve talked with quite a few publishers, including the former head of MTV, and they were VERY positive about Flipboard. That’s why it’s getting hyped. Even here, you’re on Techmeme, and no one has come forward and said “you’re right Rex.” That alone is VERY interesting.

  • zato

    “universally positive response”
    You don't know what the response was. You weren't there. Calling it BS is BS.

  • Thanks for dropping by, Robert..I can assure you that my blog is not the venue where publishers are going to air any differences of opinion regarding Flipboard. Unlike Socbleizer, this blog has never been much of a magnet for debate. It’s just a tiny cul-de-sac on the information superhighway.Also, I can’t imagine a media person not loving the product, but the quote I reposted implies something more than liking the product. If you don’t think the answer I reposted was hyperbole, then we can just agree to disagree. (But I still am your fan.)I need to clarify something else. In no way am I saying anything or anyone about Flipboard is evil. I can disagree with them, their initial approach or even their hyperbole, but I am assuming the people there are very talented, charming, smart and anything but evil. Is pointing some difference I may have with their strategy or approach saying they’re evil? If all I get to do is say how wonderful something is, I don’t think that’s necessarily helpful to a startup that I hope can succeed.I really like the product Flipboard. If I didn’t I wouldn’t take the time to care whether they succeed or not.

  • Thank you, @zato. Let me explain it another way: Based on my experience of owning a media company (that among other things, publishes magazines) for the past two decades, along with my experience of serving on the boards of two national magazine and media trade associations and on the board of another magazine and business media company, I have never seen or heard of anything that has received universal positive response. Such experience, along with talking personally with friends who are magazine publishers about Flipboard, lead me to feel confident in suggesting any claims of 100% positive response to it by publishers is a bit over-stated.

  • Nice analysis, Rex. I believe the very reason that Flipboard resorts to scraping in the first place reflects the need for interoperability between content providers and delivery mechanisms. It appears that each major publisher insists on having their own unique “new media” strategy that is mutually exclusive from the work of others. I find Flipboard refreshing as I can move between different streams of information using a uniform method, like an RSS reader, but in an entirely captivating interface. In my opinion, if publishers would provide subscriptions that are transferable between various reader apps like Flipboard, instead of mandating their own application to ensure lock-in, it would stimulate innovation in Flipboard-like apps. I suppose the greatest hurdle is that publishers don't like having a middleman between themselves and consumers?

  • When I say “I'm usually open minded about these things,” that is what I'm talking about. RSS is about as standard and transferable a means of subscription as there is likely to be. Layer on top of that the APIs of content providers and you'll get somewhere close to having a foundation with which to work with publishers. By jumping ahead and determining (without their cooperation) what amount of scraping is acceptable is not a good strategy. The “hey, well dial it back if they ask us” approach is circa 1999 and, when coming from a Kleiner Perkins funded company, doesn't have that “oh, geez, we're just a small company” believability.

  • zato

    “leads me to feel confident in suggesting any claims that it has received 100% positive response by publishers is a bit over-stated.”

    “bit over-stated.” OK.
    But that takes a lot of wind out of the article above.
    Your arguments sound pretty lame to me.
    Are you connected in any way to the Advertising Age Flipboard article from today?
    No one expects Flipboard to escape without backlash. But AFAIK, anyone can opt out.
    It's a beautiful product with huge potential. It's creativity like this that is why America is the TECH leader.

  • >Are you connected in any way to the Advertising Age Flipboard article from today? No
    >Your arguments sound pretty lame to me. / That's amazing to me, as you are the first person who has ever read anything I've argued who has not agreed with me 100%
    >No one expects Flipboard to escape without backlash. / Are you a spokesman for Flipboard? How do know they didn't expect to escape without backlash?
    >It's a beautiful product with huge potential. It's creativity like this that is why America is the TECH leader. / Did you actually read my post? Is there anywhere in it that I criticized the product? Did I include something that implied I did not think America is the tech leader? Did I suggest that Flipboard's product was anything but creative?

  • Tom

    Leo Laporte said he wasn’t sure about their methods on this week’s “Macbreak Weekly”, and he also reported that Nilay Pitel of Engadget was livid when he saw that Flipboard was scraping content without permission.

    I only took the time to post this because of all the comments like yours actually backing up Flipboard’s crazy claim that EVERY SINGLE PUBLISHER is overwhelmingly positive about Flipboard.

    Good article, Rex!

  • Thanks, Tom. When “every singe publisher” agrees on anything, it will be newsworthy.

  • Evan

    The New Yorker Writers section is a list curated by The New Yorker itself. You can view it at http://twitter.com/NewYorker/newyorkerwriters


  • Thanks for pointing this out. That doesn't change my point, however: The Flipboard team has done an awesome job of unleashing the power few people have seen heretofore in something as seemingly simple as a Twitter list. However, my friendly caution is focused on the dilemma that rather than viewing that as something good, you may be (in one of those classic unintended consequences events) demonstrating to publishers why they should re-think the “branding” implications of doing something as simple as creating a Twitter list. And, likewise, that by making such a feed a big part of what ones first perception of what Flipboard is, it may be more “strategic” to focus on other sources of content (i.e., by not using branded lists so prominently in suggested sections). Once more, my observations/suggestions are from “a friend.”