I keep calling Flipboard one of the iPad’s defining apps. It is. But the “social magazine” long ago stopped being an iPad exclusive. It’s also available on the iPhone and Android, and it’s officially coming to Windows later this year.
And starting right now, it’s available in one rather important place it’s never showed up before: your browser. Or to be more specific, part of Flipboard is now on the web — namely the magazines every user has been able to custom-curate since March by “flipping” web pages either in the apps or using a special bookmark. Formerly available only within Flipboard’s apps, these magazines are now online where anyone can read them on any device with a browser, without having to sign up for anything. (Here’s one I’ve been putting together on Polaroid photography. And here’s a neat one about ice cream. And one about violins.)
That leaves quite a bit of Flipboard which has yet to migrate to the web, including the myriad personalized sections users can set up based on their Facebook and Twitter feeds, photos from sources such as Flickr, news sources of all sorts and much more.
And the web curated-magazine experience doesn’t replicate every aspect of its app equivalent. In the Flipboard apps, for instance, some of the articles provided by the company’s partners appear in nicely formatted versions tailored for Flipboard. On the web, selecting a story to read always kicks you out to the originating site. Recommending a story on Facebook or Twitter also takes you out to the corresponding social network; in the apps, you can do it without leaving Flipboard.
It’s not even all that easy yet to find Flipboard magazines on the web, since there’s no all-encompassing search engine or extensive directory for them, just a guide to some of the ones the company thinks have broad appeal. If you come across one, it’ll likely be because someone shared it elsewhere on the web, such as on Facebook or Twitter.
Why put just part of Flipboard in the browser rather than wait until the whole thing is done? “We wanted to give people the opportunity to make these magazines available to everyone right away,” says co-founder and CEO Mike McCue. “This is the web, and we can iterate.” McCue told me that full-blown web Flipboard is on its way: The company plans to add features as they’re ready until the online version catches up with the apps, late this year or early in 2014. “We’re not going to ship it until we love it,” he says.
Even in partial form, figuring out how to make Flipboard web-friendly wasn’t a breeze. Websites, almost by definition, are made up of vertically-scrolling pages that just keep going until they’re done. But as its name suggests, Flipboard has always chopped everything up into flippable, browsable, magazine-style pages. As the company figured out how to take its product online, McCue says, “We had to move away from or reaffirm our commitment to pagination.”
In the end, it opted for reaffirmation. Online, Flipboard magazines still consist of pages that flip by exactly as they do on the iPad. You can page through them using the space bar or the arrow keys. (I did it the way I move through any website on my MacBook Air, with a two-fingered scrolling gesture on the touchpad — though it felt a tad peculiar to swipe vertically and see pages flip past horizontally.)
On iOS and Android devices, Flipboard is satisfyingly snappy, which is one reason why perusing it is often more pleasing than finding and consuming exactly the same content on the web. The web version, it turns out, is also fast and fluid, an accomplishment you can’t take for granted even in the era of advanced HTML5 web technologies. The typography, images and layout are still beautiful, and the web version deftly does something the apps don’t have to deal with: If you resize your browser window, it reformats the page on the fly to optimize it for the available space.
Curating a Flipboard magazine isn’t exactly like any other method of sharing stuff on the web. But now that the magazines are on the web, they compete with other means of social sharing in ways they didn’t when they could only be seen by other Flipboard users. Creating a magazine isn’t really blogging — there’s no way to insert original material beyond brief comments on items you post, and magazines don’t have tidy URLs such as polaroidmag.flipboard.com — but it struck me that many folks use Tumblr largely for recommending items on a given theme, just as you can do with Flipboard.
I asked McCue whether the newly web-enabled Flipboard is becoming a competitor for Tumblr or other blogging platforms. “I think there will be more overlap over time,” he acknowledged. “But we’re kind of on our own mission here to let people build these magazines.” In the four months since the magazine feature premiered, 1.4 million users have created 2.5 million magazines, available until now only to the app’s roughly 70 million users. It’ll be fun to see whether the quantity and ambition of these curated publications balloon now that their potential readership is limited only by world’s population of web users.