There's a funny thing about an app store with over half a million titles: some of that stuff falls through the cracks. No matter how long you spend sifting and shuffling and swiping between icons, there's going to be some apps you just never notice.
Now, if you somehow manage to avoid learning about a particular app even when it's been featured as Apple's iPad App of the Year, named one of TIME's Top 50 Innovations, and given the distinction of the top social app at 2012's Webby Awards, well ... that takes talent. And that's what I've got, folks. That particular, temporary tone-deafness to some corners of pop culture that prevents me from discovering something everyone else is loudly fawning over.
Fortunately, Flipboard -the app we're discussing, if you haven't yet caught on- burst back into the spotlight recently with two big pieces of news: it's broadened its abilities significantly with the addition of audio material, and it's coming to Android via a special version unique to the Samsung Galaxy S III (though the APK is available for download now thanks to XDA-Developers).
If you're like me, and you somehow managed to avoid learning about this blockbuster app until now, let's cover what Flipboard is: it calls itself a "social news magazine." Okay, hold on- don't click away. I know it sounds boring; it's a horribly dry way to describe what's actually a pretty incredible app.
At its most basic level, Flipboard is an aggregator for your social-media content. After installing the app, which is free in the App Store, you introduce it to your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social network accounts. You also have the option of selecting from a handful of broad topics that you enjoy following: the usual news subcategories like "science," "business," "sports," etc. are all covered. You can also search for and choose specific sites to follow, if you want to be all granular about it. Flipboard registers your selections, applies those filters to its news feed, piles it all together, and displays that content in its own quirky way.
Sounds pretty familiar, right? Sounds like pretty much any news aggregator, yeah? Well, in terms of sheer functionality, yes: that's what Flipboard is. Where it stands out is the how .
When Flipboard says "social magazine ," it means it- and not in the dull, worn-out, old-media sense. The magazine format is richer and more attractive than almost any other medium, and when that's applied to your news feed -not to mention your Facebook and Twitter streams- the result is breathtaking.
I took notes throughout my first interaction with Flipboard, earlier tonight. I've cleaned them up and removed the typos and expletives (speech-to-text on my Galaxy Nexus was misbehaving in the loud atmosphere of the Border Café), and added clarification where it was needed. Here's a blow-by-blow of my first hour with the app. Times are approximate.
The "flip" paradigm is instantly recognizable right at startup, with a flip cue periodically folding the page as I take in the welcome screen. Nice touches are immediately apparent, like a dancing girl on splash screen, looking through binoculars (is this a cinemagraph?) and rotation effect with tiles ... beautiful UI.
(If "dancing girl on splash screen" hasn't already propelled you to the App Store, apparently I need to take more descriptive notes.)
(At this point, I still don't know what Flipboard is, even at a fundamental level. I'd elected to go in totally blind.)
I have no idea what I'm doing because I don't even know what this app is yet ... but I'm having fun. "Pick some categories to start?" Dunno why, but sure!
(As I take in the Metro-esque design of the home screen) * Wow, very WP7 ... that's a good thing. Clean. Crisp.
Okay. I get it now.
Just set up Twitter. When I first landed on my Twitter page I was like "WTF." Didn't understand, at all, that I was looking at my Twitter feed ... then realized what it was doing and [was very happy]. It looks like a newspaper ... but it's beautiful.
(Ten minutes pass as Flipboard's utter usability distracts me. I start taking notes on editorial ideas spawned by the news I'm reading in my Twitter feed. News I would have passed over before.)
Ten minutes later, I've completely stalled in this review ... because looking at Twitter is such a beautiful, bright, fun, enjoyable experience now. How have I been missing this? So much less clicking! Before, I would thumb swipe through a list of dead text, wearing a slack-jawed Nintendo face. This is amazing!
Realized I wanted to tweet about my current status. Almost jumped over to a Twitter app to do so, because using Flipboard feels like I'm in another kind of app, like Newsstand. But no ... it lets me tweet right from here.
Logging in to Facebook. Flipboard asks for some pretty standard permissions ...
This is so cool.
Just as with Twitter, it's visually transformed Facebook into the most beautiful and delightful newspaper I've ever encountered.
"Why is this so popular?" I don't need any more time with this app to answer that. It's about creating an inspired, beautiful user experience. People value something pretty. People value something amazing. The stock apps for Twitter and Facebook are fine ... those companies make perfectly capable applications, and they get the job done. But they're not inspired . They're not thrilling . They just ... are. They just do.
This is different.
(The restaurant has quieted some, and I'm able to elaborate more fully as I get more comfortable with the app.)
Fundamental to its superiority is Flipboard's lack of taps. I swipe between pages, and the stories are already there. I don't need to click down, to drill down into to them; they're already in front of my eyes. I'm not forced to read a little summary of filler or a block of SEO-optimized text. I just start reading the story. The beautiful simplicity of this approach is staggering.
I forgot what Flipboard is again. Like, in a broad sense. Got trapped into thinking I was in Newsstand. I just tapped into the science block on the homepage, and started wondering where the content was coming from, and how Flipboard got hold of it. Then I remembered ... this is an aggregator! But it feels like so much more.
Got distracted again, this time by a creepy story about an abandoned Six Flags which closed seven years ago and has never reopened. I want to share it with ... wow. I have the option to share it via any connected account. I can do it all from here, instead of hopping between apps or doing something janky like emailing myself a link.
Why is this free? Do ads fuel this? Found an advertisement between pages of a Forbes story. If that's how ads are presented, this is even more like a magazine than I thought. Much less intrusive than a banner or pop up. Much less in-your-face. It's exactly like flipping past an insert in a periodical.
(I leave the restaurant, flabbergasted at being so excited about something I took to be a glorified news feed aggregator mere hours before.)
I want to mention a few things. First, I didn't have time to give the new media features a proper run-in, but I was able to confirm that the audio suite works well enough to start streaming a few shows like Radiolab through the app. It plays in the background just fine on my 2012-edition iPad.
Second, I wasn't able to test Flipboard on an Android device, but as the version available to modders (and the public, over at XDA) is an unauthorized and unoptimized release, there are bound to be changes before its official unveiling that make any sort of Android review pointless at this stage.
Finally, this isn't an official "review," and yes, I do realize it reads like a commercial for an app everyone already knew about. I wanted to explore what it is that's driven Flipboard to such great heights of popularity. The best way to do that was to download it and give it a spin. While I didn't experience any malfunctions -or bugs of any kind, really- I've seen some reports on Twitter and in the App Store that suggest users of older devices may see some pretty serious stability issues, so your mileage will certainly vary.
Flipboard is popular because it "gets you." It understands that users value an experience with a premium feel, but which is minimal enough to avoid any semblance of cruft or chrome. It's responsive and light. It's free. On a high-pixel-density display, it's stunningly beautiful. Flipboard delivers all this, and the stock applications that serve the same functions don't.
Of course, all that's fine and dandy in any application. But when that cocktail of awesome is applied to your own social feeds, and it's your own online existence staring back at you through the pages of this gorgeous faux magazine, with friends' status updates and pictures of their cats looking like headline stories in Time or Newsweek ... it's something different entirely. Something special.
I may be late to the party, but I sure am glad I arrived.
May 2012 version update info source: Flipboard
** Flipboard on Android photo source: Electricpig