"It's clear that the future of media consumption is tablets and mobile...if there's anywhere to be experimenting as a company, it's in the acceleration of content off the desktop. It's a whole new world and now we need new tools." So says Doug Imbruce, founder and CEO of Qwiki, a mostly-automated multi-media content creation system that today launches what Imbruce calls its true potential, unleashed: Qwiki on the iPad (iTunes).
All I've wanted to do since seeing it is spend time wandering through this app. It's fabulous and it's just beginning. If the company can execute its plans then this is going to be some seriously disruptive stuff. Some people hate Qwiki; those people will pay a high price for their cynicism - they'll miss out on one of the most enjoyable information consumption experiences to emerge in some time.
What is this magical app? Qwiki is a technology that takes raw text, photos and videos and attempts to weave it all together into a short, dynamic presentation that makes sense. The system notes data types like dates and locations and creates original infographics to represent it.
If you've tried Flipboard on the iPad - that does something similar, it transforms content into something tablet-friendly. Qwiki does that too, but whereas Flipboard's content is entirely human-driven, Qwiki has location and algorithms driving its editorial decisions. Both are great apps. Flipboard uses the famous iPad swipe motion far more than Qwiki does, Qwiki's use of big maps and swirling images is great on the iPad.
"Most companies don't have the DNA of both Art and Science," Imbruce says. "We do and that's why we can create such compelling products."
Is it perfect? No, but if you want to spend your time complaining about its shortcomings you just go ahead and do so - I'll be busy learning about everything from the history of my neighborhood to famous baseball players to the Ed Sullivan Show. I've consumed more encyclopedic content in the past week thanks to Qwiki than I have in a year otherwise. Maybe longer. Sometimes I wish the Qwikis were longer, but if I'm really interested in learning about a topic in-depth I can click through to the Wikipedia article and then to original sources. That viewers are left feeling just a little unsatisfied after each bit might be part of why the next one is so easy to click on.
Qwiki isn't for every situation. It's not a quiet activity and some people might not like the sound of the female robot's voice. If you try to use the Qwiki iPad app on public transit (as I did yesterday) people may look at you like you're a major snob from the future, given how futuristic and fancy the app looks.
Qwiki wowed people when they saw it demonstrated on the desktop - but the iPad app is much, much better. It's made for that form factor. That your iPad is mobile is significant too. The first thing the Qwiki app will ask you is for permission to access your location. Then, in addition to the Qwiki of the day, you'll be shown a map you can click to zoom into.
Click on that map and you'll be taken to the city you're in. Zoom out, zoom in, wherever you move the map view too, Qwiki will flag the 10 most popular geo-located Qwiki items within your current view. I first tested the app while visiting San Francisco. That was cool. Then I tested it when I got home - that was engaging and felt useful. Then I zipped the map down to the town I grew up in. That was an emotionally evocative experience.
Imbruce knows it, too. "It feels really good to see a 16 year old view the Qwiki on Leonardo Da Vinci or to see my mother browse her grandparents' home town in Italy," he says. "This is a serious company, we're going to build something that's generationally significant."
Qwiki as Platform
While the Qwiki app today is pretty cool, it has platform aspirations. Here's what we wrote about Qwiki in our January post In Defense of Qwiki: The Machine That Reads to You:
Qwiki wants to let a robot make beautiful movies for you to passively learn about any topic, any text, that you choose. The web is an interactive place, but sometimes it's good to sit back and enjoy the fruits of that interactivity in a way that asks less of you as a user.
Traditional multi-media content is too expensive to scale to serve the long-tail of would-be consumers. The days of broadcast, mass-media as "the only game in town" are gone. If we're all going to get multi-media satisfaction, for all our obscure interests, a lot of it is going to need to be created by robots. Not all of it, but a lot of it.
"Within 6 months to a year we will have a platform that ingests content, makes it intelligently summarized and makes it available on all kinds of different devices including interactive television," Imbruce told me. "Publish once, play anywhere."
Imbruce says the company is choosing publishing partners to pilot with now. "We see extreme scale with 3rd parties deploying their content into Qwiki and we'll remix it without human effort."
A big part of the platform, in addition to ordering the images in time with the read text, is the creation of infographics. "If you boil down Qwiki it's the infographics," Imbruce says. "We've only got a handful of those now but we're going to offer a platform for thousands of types of infographic, most recent tweet, charts, foursquare check-ins. All the different types of infographics will become re-usable, too."
Qwiki and Legacy Publishers
Publishers have raised major objections to the transition of their content into other iPad formats that were different and not completely under their control. How will they react to the prospect of being Qwiki'd?
"Newspapers didn't want to go online 10 years ago, either," Imbruce told me.
"There's a survival instinct where most publishers have a bureaucracy that prevents them from producing a compelling UX. Just as the shift online left publishers unable to exert the level of control they wished, that same shift will happen in the shift to mobile. We haven't seen that reaction though, we've just seen enthusiasm.
"In 2011 any company's goal has to be to satisfy users or else they will die. Users have such a voice now that successful companies have to be user-centric. You can't monopolize media any more and tell people your product is good, it has to be good."
Is Qwiki good? I think it's great, but try it out for yourself and let me know what you think. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some fresh Qwiki content to consume.