I’ve been using the iPad since it came out in April, and I still haven’t strayed from my initial impression: Apple’s tablet computer is a luxury, not a necessity. I must say, though, that I’ve gotten attached to using the iPad to surf the Web, browse Twitter and Facebook, and play a lot of games. (My favorites: Modern Conflict HD and Real Racing HD.) The iPad has also been a boon to my reading habits. I’ve purchased many e-books from Amazon’s Kindle store (you can read them on the beautiful app that Amazon built for the iPad), and I’ve read countless magazine stories through Instapaper, the brilliant program that lets you save Web articles to your mobile devices.
In the last few days, I’ve started using another iPad app that has changed how I consume the news. The program is called Flipboard, and it turns the iPad into what I’ve been wishing it would become—a dynamic magazine that combines the diversity and real-time updates of the Web with the beauty of print. If Flipboard isn’t the future of magazines, it is at least a very good take on the future. It’s also my favorite new iPad pastime.
When you first load up Flipboard, it asks for your Facebook and Twitter account information. The program then goes out and grabs everything that your friends and followers are linking to—news stories, photos, videos, songs, etc. Then the app does something magical: It “resolves” these links, presenting you with a small bit of preview content rather than the meaningless URLs you see on social networks (http://bit.ly/dyKi6l). Even better, it lays out that content in a really pretty way. Flipboard arranges stories and photos in a style that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever read a magazine or a newspaper—the headlines, pull quotes, and graphics occupy the full iPad screen, giving you a quick take on several articles at once. Clicking through the “river” of links that you’re presented with on Twitter and Facebook can sometimes seem like a chore; perusing those same links on Flipboard is both more efficient and loads more entertaining.
This experience might not sound novel to iPad users who regularly browse the App Store, where there are lots of news-reader apps that claim to personalize the Web to your tastes. I’ve downloaded several of these programs, though, and none has stuck with me. That’s because most of the reader apps made for the iPad so far (for instance, a cumbersome $5 program called The Early Edition) use RSS, the Web syndication system that I’ve long argued is past its prime. RSS readers are based on the false premise that our digital tastes are both limited and more-or-less static—that you have five or 10 or 100 favorite sites, and you want to read them over and over again.
But that’s not how I read the Web, and I’d bet it’s not how you do, either. Instead of choosing a few specific sites to read, I like to click on the links I find in my e-mail, on aggregator sites like the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post, on blogs, and most of all through the people I follow on Twitter and Facebook. Navigating the Web through links, rather than through feeds, gives me a much wider range of articles to read, and it leads me to places that I wouldn’t have thought of going to on my own.
It’s this serendipitous quality that makes Flipboard so addictive. The app mashes up stories from all over the Web in a way that feels beautifully random. As I flip through Flipboard right now, I see an activist graphic that John Cusack posted on Twitter next to a Wired.com story about whale shark poop near a Bloomberg story about the Russian wildfires and this hilarious collection of New Yorker cartoons captioned with Kanye West’s tweets.
While all of these links came via my social networking accounts, Flipboard still works even if you’re not into Facebook or Twitter. The app lets you make a magazine based on any public Twitter list—add this Twitter list of Slate writers to your Flipboard, for instance, and you’ll see all the interesting things that Slatesters are clicking on. The app also comes pre-loaded with several such lists curated by the Flipboard staff, so you don’t have to do anything at all to get started.
Flipboard only shows you a small snippet of each of these stories; if you’d like to read the whole thing, you can click a button that takes you to the site’s full page through an embedded Web window. If Flipboard takes off, we’re bound to see legal scuffles between media firms and the app’s creators. Flipboard argues that because it reproduces only a snippet from a site and lets you visit the full page, it’s perfectly legal, news companies that have been fighting bloggers’ “over-excerpting” may not agree. In any case, I found myself clicking through quite often. I particularly loved how the app seemed to pre-load stories into its embedded browser; when I clicked the “Read on Web” button for a particular article, the story would pop up with almost no lag time. This encouraged me to read a lot of news sites; I wouldn’t be surprised if publishers find their iPad hits increasing as Flipboard adoption takes off.
Flipboard isn’t perfect. In addition to parsing Facebook and Twitter, I wish it would suck up links from my e-mail inbox, too. More annoying is that, at least for the moment, Flipboard is arranged chronologically—it presents the latest stories first, and you flip through to see stuff that was posted to Twitter and Facebook earlier in the day. But this isn’t a very rational way to present news. A big story from an hour ago—one getting lots of links from people in your network—is probably more relevant than a small story from two minutes ago.
In interviews, the Flipboard team has suggested that it’s working on building this sort of intelligence into the app. When it comes, Flipboard will get one step closer to being the world’s best digital magazine.