Flipboard, one of the first iPad applications to really take advantage of the new device’s touch interface to create a kind of digital magazine, released a series of updates and new features Thursday that turn the app into even more of a tablet newsstand. As newspapers and magazines continue to try to capture readers with their own site-specific apps, Flipboard is making it easier for users to create their own constantly changing iPad magazine — one that pulls from hundreds of sources, and has social feeds and signals built in. As we’ve argued before, this looks a lot like the future (or one version of the future) of digital publishing.
Among the new features in the updated version of the Flipboard app is the ability to pull in an unlimited number of RSS feeds from websites or content publishers you want to follow through the app (readers were previously limited to 21 feeds). When you can aggregate and then browse hundreds or even thousands of sources — from RSS feeds to magazine publishers like The Economist, one of Flipboard’s new partners in this version — one of the big issues is finding content, so there’s a new “content guide” built into the app that allows users to search across all their sources, and also recommends content.
In addition to the content guide, Flipboard has added a number of enhancements aimed at using social signals to filter content — including a new tag or banner that says “popular on Flipboard” to highlight articles that have been read or shared by a lot of app users (popular articles will also be featured in the content sections that Flipboard sets up such as Art & Design, Technology, etc.). And the way tweets with links appear has also changed: The article that’s linked now shows up expanded with the tweet in a small strip at the bottom, which highlights the content being linked to rather than the tweet itself.
The content guide — which isn’t driven by an algorithm but involves Flipboard staff highlighting content from various sources — is obviously the kind of editorial function newspaper and magazine editors used to perform. But they did it within their own publications, whereas Flipboard is doing it by drawing from a vast and growing selection of digital sources (content from LinkedIn and its LinkedIn Today social news platform is also included in the new update).
In an era when anyone can become a publisher — thanks to what Om calls the “democracy of distribution” phenomenon created by social-publishing tools like blogs and Twitter and Facebook — the ability to search, aggregate and filter hundreds of sources from different platforms is a crucial function for a media outlet. It’s one that Flipboard, and other similar apps such as News.me from Betaworks and Pulse, are currently doing a lot better than any existing mainstream media entity. In fact, they’re doing it better than Google News too.
While Flipboard’s new features add a lot of utility to the app, they still don’t include one of the big elements that a digital-content service should theoretically allow, which is personalization — in other words, recommendations and filtering based on a user’s actions and social graph. While some apps such as Zite (and services such as the Washington Post‘s Trove) have made steps towards what some call “The Daily Me,” no one has really come up with a killer offering in that area yet.
If anyone is well positioned to do this, it’s Flipboard, since one of the company’s earliest acquisitions was The Ellerdale Project, which was working on exactly that kind of smart recommendation technology. According to comments made by CEO Mike McCue after the latest release, Flipboard is close to releasing a new version with personalization built in. Having recently landed a $50-million funding round, the company certainly has the runway to move forward with it — and that will extend the gap between Flipboard and the majority of the mainstream media even further.