To say that Flipboard — the new iPad application that ports users’ social media into a sleek magazine-like layout — was well-received at its launch yesterday would be understating things considerably.
Within hours, so many users had tried to download the application that “Flipboard over capacity” became a common, grumbled refrain on Twitter. “It was like trying to get a line of people a mile long through one door,” says Flipboard cofounder Mike McCue, who is still known to many in Silicon Valley as the former CEO of TellMe.
It’s not over yet. I talked with McCue just now about these last 36 hours, and what’s next for the company.
So..how was your day yesterday?
Oh my god, it was unbelievable. [The buzz] started around midnight the night before and was unrelenting. The reaction was like nothing I’d ever expected. I thought people would like it, but the incredible enthusiasm and the total rush of new people to come in because of Flipboard becoming this new trending topic on Twitter was amazing. I’m at Fortune’s Brainstorm conference in Aspen right now and pretty much none of us have slept in days.
Do you know how many people tried to download the application?
We aren’t disclosing downloads but it was a tremendous amount. We knew we’d get a lot of downloads. We just didn’t expect them to happen all at once. Only about half of the people who downloaded the application can use their Facebook and Twitter accounts right now.
And how will Flipboard enable the other half?
We’ve actually created an invitation system that will allow them to reserve a slot. I just posted a letter on our Website about how it will work. And that will let people more reliably get on the service. In fact, just now — as we’re speaking — Apple approved [the newest version of Flipboard, version 1.0.1] that not only fixes a few bugs here and there but includes the invitation system. That should help us power through this crush of users and make it better for everyone. I don’t know how long it will take to do that, but I’ll certainly know more in the next 24 hours.
Most important to us right now is that the people who’ve managed to set up the Twitter and Facebook parts are having an awesome experience and that as we allow increasingly large groups of users to do set-up, we aren’t degrading the performance of our current user base. In the meantime, we’re adding server capacity and optimizing the code so that hopefully, ultimately, we won’t need an invitation system in place.
Who is hosting the service and do you have any complaints?
Amazon is our provider and we love Amazon. It’s been very reliable. The issue has been that the more servers we deploy, the more people come in. It’s like a line of people a mile long trying to go through one door. When we make the door bigger, the line gets longer. [Laughs.]
About your launch, you rose so far above the fray, it’s remarkable. People love your product but is there anything else that you think you did really right in its rollout?
I always tell my team that all that matters if building a great product, and that if we do that well everything will take care of itself. We asked ourselves the hard questions and tried to get at the core essence, so that when people first got this product, they’d have an aha moment, then, within a minute or two, start thinking about what other features they’d like to see.
I think we were able to do that, and I think because a lot of people have been wondering where content is going to go on the Internet, we really struck a chord with the community on Twitter and in the blogger community that was really important and they communicated that in all the ways that they do.
The app has received rave reviews but obviously there are plenty of challenges ahead, the biggest of which would seem to be its reception by major media. What have you done to avoid getting papered to death by their lawyers?
We’ve been talking to a lot of the different content publishers, because we want them to know that we’re very supportive of them and ultimately want to be in partnership with them.
What we’re been trying to do is set it up so that the content we’re displaying is just a portion of what they are publishing. We just give people an excerpt. The whole goal is for people to click on these links and visit these publishers’ sites. So we’re trying to be a distributor of content that people are sharing, as well as to drive new users and page views to the New York Time and all the publishers out there. Because of that, the reaction we’ve gotten from publishers has been extremely positive. In fact, many are contemplating creating Flipboard optimized content, so it can look like a beatufiully formatted magazine article.
How might that happen?
Well, the New York Times, for example, already has content formatted for the tablet, so it would be very straightforward. For companies that haven’t created tablet-optimized content yet, I think they’ll begin to realize that it’s in their best interest to do that. It can be HTML, and we’re looking into creating HTML templates that they could use to quickly convert their existing Website format into something that’s more tablet-optimized. Then we could cache that content and show it within Flipbard and that would be more seamless for users.
What about concerns over brand? Robert Scoble pointed out that if he shares a TechCrunch article, he gets more credit than does TechCrunch inside Flipboard. That has to freak out content producers.
We do recognize that that’s an issue, and one that we’re going to fix. Right now, if TechCrunch shares an article, it looks fantastic; you see the headline and everything works. If I share that same article, it says, “shared by Mike McCue” and the font is bigger for me than TechCrunch. That’s a design thing we have to modify and will, to get to a state that’s nicer and better for publishers.
And what about those exerpts? How much are publishers letting you publish of their pieces, and how uniform — or not — is that excerpting process?
We have a file on the server that allows us to adjust how much content we show for a given publisher. For the New York Times, we know they are only comfortable a sentence or two of text for a preview.
Just a sentence or two? Yikes.
Yeah, we’d of course love for that to be better for people but we don’t want to do something that would make the Times unhappy. So we have a server configuration file, and for any content being shared, you look at how much content that publisher is willing to share and to do that we look at RSS feeds. Like with AllThingDigital, Kara [Swisher] and Walt [Mossberg] are willing to do multiple paragraphs or sometimes the entire article. So our configuration file allows us to map what RSS feeds do, then atop that, we’re saying to publishers: if you’d like us to display more or less, we’re happy to adjust the configuration.
Obviously, a revenue split might make them more amenable to giving you more copy. Might there be two levels of ads — one that pays you and one within the media itself that pays out the publisher?
We’re definitely trying to create a model that will be friendly to publishers. I think people are inherently okay to pay for content if it’s great. I also think people are willing to have ads as long as the ads are great and aren’t competing with the content as they are on the Web today. So we’ve been exploring ideas around both putting beautiful, giant full-page immersive ads — the kind you see at Vogue –into the content and revenue sharing that with content providers. Or we might display their ads or our ads or some combination of both.
Another option is to work with them on content subscriptions. We’re not doing anything yet with the WSJ but as you know, they have a paywall right now. If someone sends a link and it’s sent to someone who isn’t a WSJ subscriber, we can have a button saying, subscribe to the WSJ. We might also have something where people buy on a per-article basis. So there are a lot of different options here. We’re mostly focused on ensuring we create a great experience, then once we feel good about that, we’ll start layering in the business model. In the meantime, we’re talking to a lot of the mainstream service providers and bloggers about what can we do to make their content look better, drive up their subscriptions, and generate more ad revenue. I think the process will result in some creative new approaches to content, too.
Scoble and other early users have listed a lot of other features they’d like to see included, including the ability to tweet within the application, the use of LinkedIn and Google Buzz, and the ability to import email streams. Are any or all of these capabilities coming?
Absolutely. We wanted to capture a laid-back reading experience, but eventually, we’ll be able to send out a tweet; I think everyone wants that. And yup, LinkedIn and Google Buzz [will be ported into the system], as well as Flickr, which we were going to ship with. We’ll be looking at all of them: Yelp, FourSquare, Tumblr. There are a lot of different social networks that people really like and we think there’s tremendous opportunities for us to integrate in.
I’m not sure which we’ll do when, but we’ll be looking at integrating all the social networks with publicly acceptable APIs.
As for email, our very early prototype version had it in there and there was a surprising amount of things that people link to, from articles to photos. And we do want to do something like that and because we’re on iPad, we can use email server APIs. It’s a little more involved — messages versus attachments. But we’ve been thinking about that a lot as well.
And as for anyone with privacy concerns out there?
We don’t keep personal information. We use standard Facebook and Twitter authentication tools and APIs that everyone else uses, and we provide the same level of security. So you can think of us almost the same as another Twitter desktop client, like Tweetdeck.
Speaking of which, what does Flipboard mean for some of those client companies?
I think of them as going after heavy users of Twitter and I think there’s a strong need for that — especially for people who have lots of different Twitter accounts and live and die on Twitter. I think those products are great for that.
My mom is the target audience for Flipboard. She doesn’t know or care about hashtags and @ replies. That content she cares about on Twitter is irrelevant to her. She just wants to see the content.
Can you shed any light on the company’s 12-month-plan? What will be different or better about Flipboard a year from now?
The biggest thing you’ll see us do next, in addition to feature requests, will be making the content not just more beautiful but more meaningful and we’ll do that through Ellerdale [a relevancy search engine for the real-time Web that Flipboard recently acquired]. It’s amazing technology. It goes through and provides a level of understanding of all of your content on Twitter and across your social networks, then it goes through and organizes it into logical groups. So as you’re flipping through content, you might see a sidebar about the oil spill.
You can also define what you’re interested in — say a political figure — and we’ll keep searching for stuff across the Web along with your social networks and putting that content into a special section for you.
When will this new-and-improved version debut?
We’re talking about before the end of the year. Maybe before that, but we’ll see.
Last, corny question: What’s the biggest lesson you learned running TellMe that you’ll apply or you’re already applying at Flipboard?
With TellMe, we tried to create a simple product for the masses out of a very complicated technology. I learned about scaling a business, scaling a network — all that kind of stuff. But the big thing I learned is how much I love creating something that works simply, and that everyday people will use on an everyday basis.