Flipboard Gets Back To Its Web Roots

Mike McCue was a pioneer of the modern Web, a veteran of browser maker Netscape Communications. So it was something of a shock in 2010 when he came out with Flipboard, a news-reading app that bypassed the Web altogether in favor of the then-new iPad.

"Imagine  if the Web was washed away and we needed to build a new one from scratch," McCue told ReadWrite founder Richard MacManus at the time, explaining the design philosophy that led Flipboard to build an app—not a website—to help people find and organize the headlines their friends and contacts were sharing online.

Now he's come full circle. Today, Flipboard is introducing a Web version of its service, in part to emphasize the 2.5 million "magazines"—collections of links on a specific topic, laid out in the app's distinctively appealing visual style—that users and publishers have created since that feature's launch in March.

McCue credits the introduction of magazines with helping Flipboard grow from 50 million users to 75 million users in the past few months, though it's not clear how much of that growth is attributable to the link collections and how much is due simply to the service's growing popularity and an expanding market of smartphone users.

Mobile First, Web Last

Flipboard is not the first startup to begin on mobile and then embrace the Web. Foursquare, Instagram, and Path have all made parts of their services available to Web users.

But they all used the constraints of mobile devices to establish niches before they ventured onto the Web, where they faced established competitors. It's far from clear that any of them would have succeeded had they launched on the Web. (Indeed, before Instagram's creation, its founders first made a Web-based check-in service called Burbn that was going nowhere fast.)

Flipboard toyed with the idea of launching on the Web first, McCue told ReadWrite. But "it was starting to feel like just another website," he said, and he worried that the user-interface ideas Flipboard was experimenting with—like flipping pages by swiping across a screen—would not "resonate" with desktop PC users.

Today's Web version of Flipboard embraces both its mobile heritage and the lingering advantages of desktop websites. Like Polar, an innovative polling app whose design scales up from its mobile experience rather than down from the desktop, Flipboard makes use of the presence of a keyboard. You can flip pages with left and right arrow keys, for example.

Mobile design concepts are far more familiar to desktop users now than they were three years ago, so it's far less jarring to see a website like Flipboard's.

For Magazine Makers 

The biggest beneficiary of Flipboard's move to the desktop Web may be the people and companies creating magazines. While tablets and smartphones are great for reading, they're far less handy for publishing.

"Right now, you can only add an item to a magazine one item at a time," McCue pointed out, as an example of the mobile interface's inherent limitations. Magazine creators will soon be able to add multiple items at once, from automated feeds or search queries.

But Flipboard's magazines will also benefit from the lush display possible on large monitors.

"In the long run, I hope this will be the first step to rethinking what a website is," said McCue.