From the moment word got out that Facebook was working on a newsreader app, people have been comparing it to Flipboard. It makes sense too. With over 100-million users across multiple platforms and a reputation for beautiful design and social integration, it has become pretty much the name in social news apps.
Now that Facebook’s app, called Paper, has been officially been launched though, there are a couple of questions that need to be answered: are the comparisons fair and should Flipboard be afraid of Paper? On the basis of the evidence so far, I would suggest the answers lie somewhere around “hell yeah” in the case of the former and “it depends” in the case of the latter.
A high-stakes beauty contest
If comparing Paper to Flipboard seemed apt while it was still in development, it became unavoidable one Facebook gave us a glimpse of what its app would look like.
Like Flipboard, Paper places heavy emphasis on beautiful-looking design. Also like Flipboard, it has a load of nifty cosmetic features (you can tilt your phone to explore high-resolution panoramic photos from corner to corner, and see faces and other important details up close for instance) and gives you a fair amount of control over what you see in your feed.
In the looks department then, it looks like Paper and Flipboard could find themselves locked in a high-stakes beauty contest. For fans of Flipboard, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If Paper ends up taking off at all then you can be fairly certain that Flipboard will up its design game and give its users an even more beautiful experience.
Paper’s beauty is no guarantee of success though. Facebook Home was also beautiful, remember? Hands up anyone who still has it installed on their phone.
Getting everything right
Facebook Home failed for a number of reasons, not least of all because it failed to realise that people don’t actually want to have Facebook playing a constant role on their smartphones. They prefer to dip in and out of apps as they need to. There’s a reason after all that there are millions of smartphone apps competing for your attention.
By making Paper a standalone app, it looks like Facebook’s avoided falling into that trap again, but there are still a whole heap of other things it has to get right if it seriously wants to compete with Flipboard.
In at least one of those areas, being a viable source of news, it’s making serious gains. To be fair, people already tend to use Facebook for news, it’s just been doing a lot of work on making the experience better.
If you’ve noticed a reduced number of memes in your normal Facebook news feed over the last little while, that’s because the social network’s started prioritising actual news.
While that might not seem important to Paper, bear in mind that the first and only compulsory feed on the app is your own Facebook news feed. Add Facebook’s knowledge of your social graph and you have a potentially killer combo.
Flies, ointments and all that jazz
The thing is, the kind of people who like having social recommendations in their news feed aren’t likely to just use Facebook. It simply doesn’t have Twitter’s capacity for breaking news in real-time for instance. And on that front, Flipboard has Paper beat hands down.
Aside from being allowing you to curate your own news interests, Flipboard also allows you to curate your Google+, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest accounts. As social discovery goes, you can’t get much better than that.
In fact, a number of others have already tried without much real success. Taptu probably came the closest in terms of functionality (it actually got into the game before Flipboard), but these days it’s pretty much a nearly-ran. Pulse meanwhile is pretty good for curating your news interests, but these days its founders are spending a lot more time bulking up LinkedIn’s publishing efforts (the professional social network bought the service in mid 2013).
The point is, Flipboard’s seen off competitors before and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if it does so again.
If Paper really is to be a threat to Flipboard then, Facebook has to remember that attaching its name to it is no guarantee of success. Its attempts at email, mobile chat, deals and social gifting (the list goes on) prove that.
If, on the other hand, Paper is seen as Facebook acknowledging that it needs to unbundle its web-based core into a number of mobile products, then it could be step in the right direction. A step in the right direction does not however a Flipboard beater (or even competitor) make.