Flipboard has become the market leader, moving ahead of its rival Pulse News, while upstart Zite has gained some initial traction. Of course, this is a nascent market – market estimates suggest Flipboard may have seen 1 – 1.5m downloads, with Pulse probably slightly fewer.
While all three apps have many things in common, I’ve found they are useful for different purposes. I will describe below how each may best be used and how the market may evolve.
Pulse News, from Alphonso Labs, was the first of its type and gained huge exposure when Steve Jobs demoed the app as part of the initial iPad 1 launch event. Of course that was followed by a C&D from the NY Times, which probably brought them even more attention. The Pulse UI is clean and takes advantage of the swipe and the visual nature of the iPad. At its core, it’s very much an improved Google Reader. Pulse also spotlights “featured” sources such as the Wall Street Journal, Salon, CNN and others to help newbies get up and running. They also offer a set of “top X” lists where they curate the top stories in categories like business, technology, music, sports and more. Pulse also allows its users to integrate their Facebook and Twitter feeds. As with all of the new readers, Pulse offers a number of social tools to make it easy to share a story via email, post it to Twitter or Facebook or save it to Instapaper.
Flipboard, which recently raised a $50m venture round at a $200m valuation and struck a deal to feature content from Oprah's OWN, launched in July, 2010, a few months after Pulse News. Positioning itself as a “social magazine”, Flipboard initially was focused on providing access to the stories that were linked to in your Twitter or Facebook stream. They subsequently have added integration of other content – featured categories (similar to Pulse), Google Reader, Instagram, Flickr, and the ability to add any blog or twitter user.
The Flipboard UI is among the best I’ve seen for the iPad. They have one-upped Pulse in creating a compelling swipeable interface that makes it a pleasure to browse content.
- First, I’ve created a number of Twitter lists, focused by industry, which I feed into Flipboard. So, when I want to see the latest articles on Big Data, I simply open the Big Data page in Flipboard and I find the articles linked to in the tweets of the people on my Big Data list. I have similar lists where I can easily track the pharma/biotech and digital media space. I get an intelligently curated magazine of the latest news in any given sector. Of course, it requires you to build and maintain these Twitter lists, but for information junkies, it’s a great tool.
- Second, I use Flipboard as a “read later” bookmark for Twitter. Any time I want to read a link from a tweet later, I simply favorite the tweet. I have a “Twitter Favorites” panel in Flipboard, where I can then read those stories. Sure, I could use Instapaper for that purpose (and I do use Instapaper for longer and offline reads) but there’s no quicker way to “bookmark” a link in Twitter for later reading.
The latest entry into the tablet readers category is Zite.
Zite takes a very different approach than Pulse and Flipboard and comes closest to the “serendipity” model of browsing. Rather than having you punch in a bunch of feeds to read, Zite asks for your initial preferences, by category and/or by providing your Twitter and Facebook Ids, then pulls content from thousands of sources which it feels might be relevant. Zite learns from your personal usage – from every story you read. And each story allows you to indicate whether you like or dislike it, and whether you want more stories from that source or about that topic. I was skeptical at first, but have found the relevance of Zite content went up significantly for me after just a few days of usage.
Zite, like Flipboard, has become a key part of my daily routine.
While these three are clearly the key apps to watch for tablet-based news, there’s a recently launched company which is sure to gain traction this year.
OnSwipe is a platform to enable publishers to easily make their content tablet-friendly. Its UI will be familiar to Flipboard, Pulse or Zite users, but OnSwipe is built in HTML5, meaning there’s no need for an app. In fact, publishers can have a site that looks like any other website through a desktop browser, but then has the swipe interface when viewed on any tablet. With a hyper-competitive market for mobile developers, this should be particularly attractive to publishers, who’ve often struggled to build compelling products.
OnSwipe did a preliminary launch of a WordPress plugin, to allow any WordPress blog to be “swipe-able” when viewed through an iPad browser, but their full product is a few weeks from release.
While each of these apps are slightly different, there are many commonalities which provide guidance for content companies looking to develop tablet apps. First, the swipe-centric user interface is here to stay and it’s being widely adopted. There’s no need to come up with your own navigational methods – these are quickly becoming the standard and all publishers should adopt them in their mobile devices. The second key element is that they are all very visual. It’s time to get rid of the text-heavy page. That’s evident even on the web, where companies like Newser and Huffington Post have succeeded with more graphics and less text. Third, and perhaps most important, is that social sharing and discovery of content has arrived.
In my estimation, the battle ground for the coming year will be between Flipboard and OnSwipe to see which can gain the most market share among publishers. Their models are different, with Flipboard aiming to draw publishers into its environment, while OnSwipe allows publishers to have their content accessible via the browser. The latter seems a more attractive model for publishers and I wouldn't be surprised to see Flipboard providing white-label versions of their product to publishers.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement in each of these products. For enterprise and publisher adoption, they will need to create stronger authentication capabilities, as well as better personalization tools. But these readers have already made a huge impact in the way that content will be consumed on mobile devices and every publisher should be paying close attention.