The latest frenzy about online copyright issues has arisen over Flipboard, an enthusiastically received iPad app that bills itself as the world's first "social magazine." Perhaps more interestingly, Flipboard could herald the arrival of a Netflix model for news content, and not a moment to soon.
In a nutshell, Flipboard takes feeds from Facebook and Twitter accounts and pulls the content from their links into an easy-to-read and eye-poppingly attractive magazine format. The tiled presentation comes complete with full images and big chunks of text from the links embedded in the streams.
There's only one problem. Rather than pull its content and images directly from the RSS (real simple syndication) feeds that publishers themselves provide, Flipboard parses the hyperlink, goes directly to the actual Web page, and pulls down the content. This is often referred to as screen scraping, and it's considered a major "no-no" by publishers who are already angry at Google (GOOG) and other big content aggregators for merely providing links with small amounts of content readily available to anyone with an RSS reader.
That Flipboard neither runs any ads at present nor does anything to monetize the content is besides the point. What's at stake here is control of the content and of the user interface, the two defining components of the Web 2.0 era. Control of these two elements is sufficient to make or break businesses. Apple (AAPL), for example, famously grabbed control of the interface of mobile phones and used its content control engine, iTunes, to build a mobile content and application juggernaut the likes of which had never been seen before in the technology world.
TiVO (TIVO) and Netflix (NFLX) have both, likewise, seized control of the user experience and allowed consumers to customize and consume video content in more individualized formats. Hulu.com, Vevo.com and YouTube all have been building content-control features that allow for greater customization within user interfaces that are simpler and easier to navigate than a standard cable box.
Not the First, But Coolest So Far
Other news aggregators have likewise allowed people to build their own publications from online content. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) launched Tabbloid, a product that allows people to print out a PDF version of their favorite blog posts and articles from the RSS feeds of their favorite publications. Another iPad and iPhone application, Pulse, quickly ran afoul of publishers and Apple itself after hitting the shelves of the Apple Store several weeks ago.
But Flipboard is different in several ways. First, its presentation is so compelling and digestible that readers could easily browse it like a front-page Wall Street Journal side box and eschew the follow-on content (Flipboard does link each truncated article back to the original on the publisher's own site). Second, Flipboard is image rich, a growing aspect of the Internet experience that has thus far not been readily accommodated by news aggregation software. Gizmodo blogger Joel Johnson cites the example of how Flipboard scrapes all the gorgeous images from the Boston Globe's popular "The Big Picture" stream, a section that pulls in high-resolution images from the Associated Press. Those images are expressly not allowed to be redistributed, which Flipboard does as a matter of course.
Flipboard's CEO has said repeatedly that the company will accommodate any requests from publishers to stop pulling in their content. Fans of the so-called "link economy," like blogger and author Jeff Jarvis, will surely point out that Flipboard is a powerful discovery engine that could enlighten readers about new sources of content. Likewise, readers clicking through to the original articles will be served up ads.
Middlemen Have Some Negotiating to Do With Publishers
But Flipboard, for all its splendor, appears to be swimming against the tide. Google has made it very clear that it intends to institute some form of micropayment or subscription mechanism to ensure that the publishers of links featured on its popular Google News search engine will get paid for their content. Many major newspapers are in the midst of plans to put up pay walls after failing to achieve sufficient revenues from digital advertising to offset losses in print revenues.
More encouragingly, what Flipboard perhaps heralds is a new Netflix-like era for written content and news material, one in which consumers will be able to slice and dice their news far more easily and put it into a readable device fully representative of the rich-media age. Publishers will sell their content comfortably to middlemen like Flipboard, and finally allow readers to consume exactly the content they want while maintaining an advantageously bundled revenue stream -- the exact sort of revenue model that has insulated the big cable TV companies from the travails of the unwittingly unbundled print and music businesses. The Amazon (AMZN) Kindle has already proved that the model of cheap subscriptions on digital platforms encourages consumers to pay for material.
But for Flipboard to become the Netflix of news, a number of hurdles must be leaped. The copyright questions must be cleaned up. The publishers must be wooed. The customers must be charged. And the economics will still be different. The fat days of print media are probably gone, never to return. But on iPads, Kindles and iPhones, people have already shown they'll pay gladly for gobs of media. Now its up to all the interested parties to figure out a way to get in the same room and agree on how to make it all work.
Then Flipboard can make it all look good.
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