Home Why Flipboard is Already One of the Best iPad Apps Available (And How it Could be Better)

Why Flipboard is Already One of the Best iPad Apps Available (And How it Could be Better)

Social magazine app Flipboard fulfills the promise of the iPad. It pulls down a real-time stream of social data from the cloud and delivers it to users in a bright, personalized, touch-screen interface. The app takes messages and links shared by your friends and other groups on Facebook and Twitter, assembles them as multi-media excerpts with whitespace on touch flippable pages and adds a variety of other social features. It’s not a new idea but it’s a very big deal.

Launched with high-profile investor backing and an explosion of media coverage, the free app is struggling to perform under a big load of user interest. None the less, it’s immediately clear that the promises of syndicated content, social news and a touch interface for real-time information are more real today than they were yesterday.

Flipboard’s user experience is very good. Its design is very good. The way it leads you down a path from viewing a short excerpt, to viewing a longer excerpt annotated with Twitter and Facebook comments in a sidebar to an immediate full-page “view on the web” version that has meanwhile been pre-loaded in the background – that’s awesome.

You can opt to hide articles shared by certain users in your stream. You can post comments and replies from inline. You can watch videos inline.

There are preselected channels you can populate your account with, and the company says that the limit of 9 channels per user will be lifted in future versions.

See also: Flipboard, New “Social” iPad Magazine will be Powered by Semantic Data

The real power here will be evident, for power users at least

, when the company gets scaling under control and the ability to add Twitter lists is turned on. Want a magazine section populated by real-time news, links and commentary about anthropology, Lithuanian ceramic arts or the development and application of open-source, emergent if relatively obscure Big Data number crunching software platforms (for example)? Flipboard will deliver you exactly that with the addition of the right lists of selected Twitter lists to your account.

RSS never caught on, most likely a few million people at most are using the most accessible RSS reader on the market. OPML, the format by which you can share collections of dynamic sources in RSS format, is an incredible act of poetry. But no one writes or reads it. Twitter lists in an interface like Flipboard? That’s a game changer.

Facebook is the way that hundreds of millions of people have been introduced to the news feed model, a stream of content in reverse chronological order. Flipboard is the first 3rd party interface that has posed a viable challenge to the supremacy of Facebook’s own interface, at least for the few million people who own iPads.

Flipboard has taken the model that Twittertim.es and Paper.li have experimented nicely with on the web, and built it out far more richly on the iPad.

How Flipboard Could Be Better

Obviously the Flipboard team is going to need to figure out how to scale to a crush of users. This problem is only going to get bigger as Apple puts support behind the app beyond what the tech press sends its direction. Hopefully it can be solved without too much cost to the timeliness of the content.

Let’s assume that problem will be solved, though.

Flipboard needs a few things to be even better. A priority algorithm of some sort would be very useful. Some of the Tweets and Facebook messages I’m shown are not very interesting to me and the interface really makes every one of them look like a must-read. The company’s acquisition of the still-unintegrated semantic ranking service Ellerdale will no doubt be aimed at solving this problem.

This is something that Facebook has totally nailed with its News Feed/Live Feed split. By default I’m shown messages of the type I’ve interacted with most, from people I’ve interacted with the most. With a click I can view instead the most recent messages from all my friends. Flipboard would be well served by a similar model.

Cruft text is a clear issue. If you’ve been able to look at the app, you’ve seen that all kinds of extraneous text gets published in the excerpts. Flipboard should crowdsource the tidying of this content – add a button to let people suggest sentences, floating words and paragraphs that ought not be displayed in the excerpts. Many links could be cleaned up quickly this way.

Photos are clearly being published on services like Twitter-based Twitpic, Tweetphoto, etc. that are not of a resolution fit for a full-screen iPad app like this. Like cruft text, when you’re automating the repurposing of content across different platforms, it takes some strategic thinking about how to present things in the most appealing way in their new context. Little things like following a feed.feedburner URL to display the actual site a post is from would be nice. In some cases, it may prove impossible to translate context. Photos are going to be a big challenge.

Finally, it would be nice if Flipboard went beyond eye-candy and UX and embraced some of the best work of the data developer community. Authentication with Twitter needs to be done without asking a user for their password. Subscription export needs to be supported, both to other platforms like Twitter and in naked XML. Analytics about our reading habits and an API for 3rd parties to build the same would be fabulous.

If you’ve got an iPad, you’ve probably already tried Flipboard at least a little. What do you think?

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