Flipboard (Apple's iPad App of the Year for 2010) tonight unveiled its first upgrade in more than 6 months; the upgrade delivers cross-network search, a partnership with popular iPhone photo sharing service Instagram and big speed improvements.Widely celebrated iPad social stream reading app
The news was embargoed until 6am Thursday but was just disclosed on the company's own blog. Upgrades are becoming available around the world on a rolling basis. The changes are dramatic and positive - but they also point toward big improvements the service will need to make in the future.
Prettier, Faster and With Broader Horizons
The new version of Flipboard makes it easy to view photos from your friends on Instagram, much like you can view Flickr photos already. It's a very appealing way to view photos: on a bright, full, multi-touch screen and from your social contacts. It would be nice if all photos were grouped together from Flickr, Facebook and Instagram; that doesn't appear to be the case.
The company makes a big deal about the addition of Instagram, and would no doubt love to have a little of that service's mojo rub off on Flipboard, but the addition of cross-network search has even more potential. "For instance, a search for 'Egypt' will deliver photos on Flickr and Instagram, Facebook Pages and Groups, and tweets that mention Egypt," the company says. "You can also search for hashtags and use Flipboard to follow conversations on Twitter." Unfortunately all these search sources don't seem to be grouped together on a common page either; it would be great to see Tweets and Facebook Groups layered together intelligently.
The addition of cross-site search is really nice, but it also points to a larger issue with Flipboard: there's not enough intelligence to the system. There's so much information coming into your Flipboard account, how does the service decide what to show and how to show it?
"There's not too much there yet in terms of Artificial Intelligence, there's no big brain in the sky," says Flipboard co-founder and former Senior iPhone Software Engineer at Apple Evan Doll. "There's a lot we'd like to do with highlighting most relevant content [in the future]."
That's really what Flipboard needs, more than anything. It's withstood challenges with its formidable design and the company says that tonight's dramatic changes to speed will greatly change the user experience, but the logic of it could be far more compelling. It's all the more bewildering why there isn't some "big brain in the sky" since Flipboard acquired a startup that provided just that, called Ellerdale, in July of last year. What happened to that semantic technology? The company said last year that it would make its appearance in Flipboard in early 2011. Hopefully it's still forthcoming; the former Ellerdale team is still at Flipboard today.
Others have been even more critical of Flipboard's relevance and its impact on the user experience. "I have not found Flipboard to be useful at summarization because it seems to display tweets with arbitrary visual weighting/priority," said former Twitter API lead and now Banksimple co-founder Alex Payne this Summer on Twitter. "Sure seems random..." agreed Brian Anderson, Creative Content Solutions at YouTube.
If you're sitting down to read news of the world on your iPad, and you trust the judgement of your friends on networks like Twitter or Facebook, then you might find the logic of other systems more compelling - even if their interfaces have less wow-factor. The forthcoming News.me, for example, shows you popular links shared by the people that your friends are subscribed to for their own reading. Look at FluidInfo CEO Terry Jones on News.me, for example, and you'll see some seriously nerdy data scientist content; look at Microsoft youth technology researcher danah boyd on News.me and you'll find great content from smart people in her field.
Flipboard offers context-switching similar to that with its support for Twitter lists; there's nothing cooler than curling up on a Sunday with Flipboard and a well-curated Twitter list of niche topic experts in geography or anthropology! But the wow is in Flipboard's interface, not in its underlying social or algorithmic logic.
There's a lot of room for improvement there. And I expect that will be particularly evident in the search experience. In the company's demo of the new version today, the Tweets that showed up in a search for Libya, for example, were nicely presented but not always raedable. Some were downright pointless.
If we're going to have a robot put together the page layout of our newspaper of the future - they've got to do more than just make it look nice. That's a great start and it's lead to Flipboard building a lot of traction. Hopefully the service will be able to take things to the next level, though.