As traditional publishers struggle to find new business models centered on the iPad and other tablets, Mike McCue, the founder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based mobile media company, Flipboard, seems to have figured out a business model for his 20-person company. McCue wants to build tablet-oriented HTML5 experiences, which allow him to bring branded advertising into a new, interactive and personalized future.
The app, which launched in July 2010 amidst a lot of fanfare, critical acclaim and criticism, has been quietly figuring out its long-term game plan. The app uses a unique interface that marries magazine-like metaphors with multi-touch gestures, and displays links shared by your followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook. It’s one of my favorite apps, but I’ve always felt the company needs to embrace the world beyond the two social networking heavyweights: Twitter and Facebook.
When McCue stopped by my office earlier this week, I put this question to him. He asked me to stay tuned. The company is looking to embrace RSS and other information sources. It’s not hard to imagine Flipboard showing content from Google Reader. Flipboard wants to make social sharing and social content curation easier for a deeper content experience, McCue said.
The keys to this future are two technologies: RSS and HTML5. “We think of RSS from the consumer’s eyes,” McCue explained. Flipboard wants to make it easy for folks to consume RSS-based content, but offer it in a manner that mainstream users will find palatable, he said.
In addition to RSS, the company is looking at HTML5 as part of its future. “We are going to be relying more and more on HTML5 going forward,” McCue said, pointing out that the company is soon going to be submitting HTML5 extensions to W3C that make it easier to use magazine style elements such as pull quotes and sub-heads.
HTML5 Framework, FlipPages
McCue, who in a past life worked for Netscape and later started TellMe Networks (sold to Microsoft for $800 million), believes his flagship iPad application is merely the first step in his long-term vision of building a new kind of information company. Behind all the talk of content consumption, content sharing and content discovery is the core business model: a new kind of advertising network that combines the traditional magazine style branding with personalized experiences.
Today, the company that has raised $10.5 million from the likes of Index Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, is launching HTML5-based Flip Pages, which give web-content publishers a framework to offer iPad-ready experience. When content from a handful of media brands such as Bon Appetit, Lonely Planet and SB Nation is shared on Twitter or Facebook, Flipboard renders the page as a magazine-style reading experience. Flipboard is working with OMD, an advertising agency, and testing magazine-page sized brand advertising from advertisers such as Pepsi, Gatorade, Infiniti and Charity Water.
More Than Just an Ad Network
From the day Flipboard launched, I’ve often wondered what the company’s business model could be. For starters, the company could offer a SaaS-based service that would allow them to easily build Flipboard-styled iPad apps for a nominal fee.
For instance, a small publisher such as GigaOM could sign up for this service and create magazine-style subsections and cover page, pick and choose fonts and other such visual elements, and create a unique enough experience. Flipboard could submit the final app to the App store, but the marketing of the app is left to the publisher. Similarly, the company can quickly add support for other tablet devices such as Android-based tablets or Palm’s WebOS based tablets, if they ever come to market.
Given that it costs tens of thousands of dollars to build an iPad app, for small publishers such as us, paying, say, $10,000 a year seems like a bargain. Now here’s the best part: The apps would carry the code for Flipboard to serve ads-from either its ad-network or on behalf of publishers for a fee. As it signsup high-quality, niche publishers, the company starts to develop big enough reach for its ad network.
If the company wants to go one step further, it should build Flipboard-powered web sites for publishers such as ourselves: a good way to build more momentum.
Of course the big question is, will publishers bite? I will, for sure. After all, what’s good for Oprah is good for me. Apparently, Oprah wanted Flipboard to build an app for her.
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