The advent of the iPad has triggered a new round of innovation in the startup community. And few startups have utilized the iPad’s touchscreen UI to create a unique user experience more than Flipboard, a magazine reading application built specifically for the iPad.

As part of our continuing product innovation interview series, I spoke with Flipboard co-founder and CEO Mike McCue. We discuss how he came up with the idea, before the iPad had even been announced, then rapidly developed and launched Flipboard. We also talk about how people are using Flipboard (hint: it’s more than just for reading magazines) and its future plans to expand beyond the iPad – including to smartphones.

In 1999 Mike McCue co-founded voice services company TellMe, which was eventually acquired by Microsoft in March 2007. He worked at Microsoft for a little over 2 years, leaving in June 2009. As he will explain below, McCue then started a thought experiment which led to an iPad magazine app called Flipboard. It wasn’t until January 2010 that Flipboard became a company, but it has evolved quickly since then.

Richard MacManus: How was the product conceived and what was the inspiration for it?

“We decided to do a thought experiment: imagine if the Web was washed away and we needed to build a new one from scratch.”

Mike McCue: When I left Tell Me at Microsoft, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. But I did know one thing – that I really like building products and thinking about product design and so on. So I knew that I would start prototyping ideas and things like that. I started looking around for somebody who I could work with, to just start prototyping things. And Evan Doll, one of the early engineers on the iPhone team at Apple, was someone that I got the chance to meet.

When we got together, we decided to do a thought experiment: imagine if the Web was washed away in a hurricane and we needed to build a new one from scratch. What would it look like? How would it be different? What would the user interface be? Would there still be the notion of a browser? If you build a totally new Web, knowing everything we know today and where the technology is and where it’s likely to be heading, what would you do differently?

RM: When was this?

MM: This was in late August of 2009.

“We wanted to create something that was much more visually beautiful than what we’ve seen with web pages.”

So we just started meeting and talking about that. Also writing to a bunch of other folks who I’ve worked with in the past and brainstorming it. We started coming up with some ideas that ultimately led to Flipboard.

There were a couple of core principles. One was that Social Media was absolutely fundamental to where the web was headed, we felt. And also, the beauty and timeless graphic design principles of print. We wanted to create something that was much more visually beautiful than what we’ve seen with web pages.

RM: Was the product specifically conceived for the iPad, or were you thinking more generally in terms of tablets – or even mobile phones?

MM: The idea evolved. When we started off, we were thinking in terms of the web broadly. And we were thinking we might develop downloadable apps for the PC, for the Mac or perhaps an HTML 5 based website. But then the idea evolved further.

When I traveled, I would buy magazines before I got on an airplane. I love magazines, I read them all the time. As I was reading them, I’d ask myself: “Why is it that the Web isn’t as beautiful as these magazines? What could we do to make the web a more beautiful place?” And of course, along with that line of thinking, I was saying to myself: “If this [Apple] tablet that is rumored ever happens, it would be the perfect form factor for doing exactly that – for making websites as beautiful as magazines.”

The date that I started realizing we needed to go more towards the magazine approach, in terms of the aesthetics and design, was in the September-October time frame.

As we talked more about it, we decided that the best way to start would be on this theoretical product that Apple was rumored to be doing. And then when Apple actually announced it [in January 2010], it was obviously very exciting for us. We realized that it was as we had hoped – that it would be the platform that could allow us to re-visualize the web in a way that maps more to print. So it would be the perfect place for us to start. And then, as we came to that realization, we married that up with social media. And we realized what we’re really doing here is creating a social magazine. We first started calling it a social magazine in January.

RM: before the iPad was launched, did you have access to the device so that you could build something on it?

MM: No. We wish. [chuckle] The day that the iPad was announced, the SDK showed up. And we downloaded the SDK and started coding Flipboard on that day.

The iPad was shipped on April 3rd. So we got the iPad and started running our code on it for the first time. Not on a simulator, but actually on the iPad. The real serious coding, where we were actually running on a real iPad, started on April 3rd. A decent amount of time prior to that was spent running in the simulator.

Flipboard launched in July of this year.

Beyond The iPad: Expanding to Other Platforms

RM: Flipboard at the moment is obviously very focused on the iPad. Are you targeting other tablet devices or even other mobile devices?

MM: Not at this point in time, but it’s only a matter of time before we do other devices. The iPad had such a tremendous start and it’s such an incredible platform, there’s a lot more we can do on that platform with the product. Rather than diffusing our resources across a bunch of different platforms, we’re focused on making the application on the iPad better. So that’s our current focus.

RM: When you do expand to other devices, will you be tdoing smartphones? Or would that require a different type of application and you’d have to rethink that…

MM: Yes, it would be a different type of product. But we do think there is an opportunity to do something on the iPhone, for example. That’s relatively straightforward to do, because the coding that’s required to do that isn’t a huge difference from what we’re doing [on iPad]. The big thing is the design. With a smaller screen, from a design point-of-view how would the product look and feel?

“About 70% of our users are connected up to Facebook or Twitter, or both.”

With the phone, you’re going to have that in your pocket all the time and you have a camera – so you’ll tend to use a bit more [for] content creation than you do with the iPad. So there are a lot of design decisions that we would need to make, in order to have a version that would run on a smartphone or the iPhone. It would be a different version of what we are doing now.

Usage Patterns

RM: Since the launch of the product, what kind of usage patterns have you noticed with people using the product? And have any of those surprised you?

MM: There’s a tremendous amount of repeat usage on any given day, by a large percentage of the installed base. So it’s being utilized at a level [of activity] that is higher than what we anticipated.

It’s a very active user base, pretty engaged and really involved in the Twitter [ecosystem].

RM: When I spoke to Jim Spencer of Newsy, he told me that they’d noticed that a lot of their usage was in the weekends – which kind of surprised them. Have you noticed anything similar in terms of when people are using Flipboard?

MM: Yes, definitely similar. A lot of it is of course because we’re on the iPad, because that’s when [many] people use the iPad. It’s when you have time to sit back and relax and look at great content. And so I think we’re seeing similar scenarios with weekend usage.

“There are two different types of users: the more social networking-oriented user and the RSS news reader type.”

At the same time, there’s a social networking aspect to Flipboard – something a lot of people do pervasively throughout the entire day [during the week]. And so we’re seeing a lot of that, too.

We’re also seeing iPad usage during the evening, in reading time. People use it in bed, before they go to sleep.

RM: One thing I’m curious about is your promotion of Flipboard as a social magazine. Are users doing more personalization at this point in time, than using the social features? The reason I ask is that my own usage of Flipboard has been mostly to customize the magazine and what information I want, and then consuming it. I haven’t really used the Twitter features and other social features, so I’m wondering if that’s the general usage pattern – or are people using the Twitter, Facebook and other social functionality a lot?

MM: We have about 70% of our users connected up to Facebook or Twitter, or both. And about 30% just use it to plug feeds into Flipboard and read those feeds. So, there are definitely two different types of users. There’s the more social networking-oriented user and there’s the RSS news reader type of user.

With Flipboard, it’s hard to categorize it. It’s not really a Twitter client or a Facebook client. And it’s not an RSS Reader either. Flipboard is really unique, in that it is built on social infrastructure. We use Twitter almost as social RSS. So it’s a very different type of product than has been out there before.

Over time, you’ll see us add more capabilities in terms of allowing people to discover content more readily on their social networks. We’ll allow them to view that content in more interesting and beautiful ways. And we’ll also let them share that, across all of their social network, in more and more interesting ways.

When you take a step back, Flipboard’s all about allowing people to discover, browse and share content across their social network.

RM: Thanks Mike! Readers, let us know in the comments if you’ve used Flipboard and your impressions so far of this “social magazine” for iPad.