Over the last few days, a new iPad media app called Flipboard has been getting a lot of attention. The app isn’t quite an RSS reader or social networking app, but seems to combine elements of both. The app, though popular, has gotten off to a rocky and slightly controversial start.
The rockiness comes in that it seems that Flipboard’s developers were not prepared for just how popular their app was going to be—it seems that everyone was trying to sign up for the service at once, entirely overwhelming their servers. They responded by configuring the servers to queue signups, asking new users to sign up for e-mail notification and wait their turn. (I downloaded Flipboard a couple of days ago and still have not yet been able to sign up to try it out.)
The idea behind Flipboard is that it turns its users’ social network posts into an iPad magazine—aggregating the links friends post to their Twitter and Facebook accounts into pages in a digital magazine. It doesn’t use RSS feeds, though “friending” blogs with Twitter or Facebook postings produces a similar effect.
And that is also where the controversy comes in, as Gizmodo wonders whether Flipboard is actually legal.
Site Scooping vs. RSS
Flipboard acts as a site scooper for the sites linked in Twitter postings. Much like Instapaper or Safari 5’s new Reader feature, it scans the site linked in the URL, then aggregates the content from the page into its magazine-style interface.
The problem is that where RSS feeds allow a site to specify just how much content it wants shared outside of the interface of its own site (be it a headline, a few lines of text, or the entire article), Flipboard simply takes everything, like Instapaper, then decides how much of it to show. (Flipboard’s representatives explain that Flipboard does not offer an entire-article view, and it tries to hew close to the restrictions of the RSS feeds for sites that have them, but there are exceptions.)
This might be fine for an app like Instapaper, where the reader at least had to visit the site to scoop it (unless he used a “send to Instapaper” option from a Twitter app, anyway), but it raises questions for an automated content aggregator. Do they have the right to decide how to present a third party’s content—even if it’s content that third party posted openly to the web?
The controversy harks back to that surrounding another iPad app, the RSS reader Pulse. This application expressly uses RSS feeds, which are content that sites have explicitly made public for reading on any application that can parse RSS—and the New York Times still complained about an app that cost money profiteering on their freely-provided content.
RSS Reader Controversy Not All That Comical
And there was another RSS-related controversy from May of this year that prefigured the New York Times issue with Pulse, that I only discovered when I was researching this post. iPhone developer Dale Zak posted a $1.99 simple RSS feed reader pre-loaded with 100 webcomics’ RSS feeds—which lasted only a couple of days before complaints from angry webcartoonists (and, more importantly, their thousands of Twitter followers) forced the app to be taken down.
Lauren Davis at the “Storming the Tower” blog posted a lengthy analysis of the issue, pointing out that Zak inadvertently stepped into a minefield—webcomics have a long history with illegitimate apps that strip just the comic image and reprint it, depriving the cartoonist of the benefit of the advertising from his page. Nonetheless, she called out the webcartoonists in question for inciting an angry mob mentality against an app that turned out to be perfectly legitimate.
Seriously, do a Twitter search for @dalezak and ask how much would you hate to be that guy. Cyberbullying doesn’t just happen to kids; it also happens to app developers who piss off the wrong people. Yes, there’s a reason that the webcomics community tends to fight these battles in public. It has proven an effective way of combating some genuine IP thieves. But if you’re going to deliberately incite that level of bile, you owe it to your fellow human being to do a little due diligence first. Also, when the guy takes down his application, it’s a nice courtesy to call off the dogs (which some, but not all, folks did).
Out of Boundaries
It seems that this and other controversies arise from the question of moving freely-provided content across device boundaries. The Flipboard and RSS reader controversies arise from the question of moving content provided for free viewing on the web into applications that might cost money.
Then there’s the matter of Hulu vs. Boxee, which I mentioned last year. Hulu’s sponsors decided they didn’t want Hulu-streamed content displayed on TV sets—just on computers. So they started trying to block Boxee, an application that pretends to be a web browser but can be run on set-top boxes that stream into TV sets.
This eventually led to conflicting statements by NBC’s and Boxee’s CEOs, with NBC claiming that Boxee “was illegally taking the content that was on Hulu without any business deal” and Boxee responding that it simply acted like any other web browser. More recently, NBC’s owner GE asked that part of the FCC report on the matter be redacted before it was released to the public.
Hulu is, of course, providing the content free for streaming over the web. And Boxee shows it just as it is streamed, including the advertisements Hulu inserts. But if it’s possible for viewers to watch this content on TV without having to go through the network, the thinking goes, then why do they need the network in the first place?
These controversies seem to stem from the fact that the Internet makes it easy to consume free content in ways that were unanticipated by its providers when they made that content free. Some of these are ways that the content providers themselves would have wanted to monetize (such as with the New York Times’s own iPad app).
I suspect we’re going to see more of this sort of issue as the iPad and tablets in general become more popular. People are starting to recognize that these devices provide entirely new ways in which to release content—while others note that they provide a new way to view content already released elsewhere for free.