The Future of Context: Mobile Reading from Google to Flipboard to FLUD

Flipboard for iPhone

Image courtesy Flipboard

Reading is changing. And arguably, even more than e-readers, tablets, or “readers’ tablets,” smartphones are changing it.

This week kicked off with the release of Flipboard for iPhone and the clever adaptation of its “social magazine” model to a fully mobile format. Not to be outdone, FLUD, one of the leading personalized news app already available for iPhone, added new features with a brand-new 2.0 version; Google introduced Currents, a new publishing platform for both smartphones and tablets; and Flipboard competitor Zite likewise jumped from the iPad to the iPhone.

In an email to Wired, FLUD CEO Bobby Ghoshal writes that the burst of personalized news networks are just filling a natural gap in the media landscape:

We see the media space as having four facets; music, video, photos and news. Then I think of all the networks I use for each of those, where each product says something about my taste. I’ve got Spotify and iTunes for my music playlists, YouTube and Netflix for video, Facebook and Instagram for my photos, and yet the industry falls short on giving me something great for news.

If we follow this taxonomy, the bridge between desktop, tablet and mobile experiences is likewise natural. In music, iTunes was built for mobile, just as Instagram was for photos and Twitter for social networking; YouTube naturally adapts itself to mobile, and Netflix to tablets. Now news readers are adapting too.

In retrospect, I think we’ll see this as an important moment in the history of media, as well as the history of the smartphone. After all, if there’s a single feature that’s always distinguished smartphones from “dumb” handsets, it’s this: smartphones are built for reading as well as talking, for literacy as much as audibility.

In early smartphones, this reading was still pretty basic: short text messages, maybe email, notes or calendars. A few enterprising souls even tried e-books. From those rude beginnings have grown a full ecosystem of apps on multiple platforms, not only web-capable browsers, but a mobile-optimized web, and emerging conventions for use that bridge interface choices and social expectations alike.

The flurry of activity around personalized news for smartphones shows that as popular as the iPad has been, and as popular as smaller Android-based devices like the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet might become, the sheer number of users on mobile phones are impossible to ignore. It also shows that customers are demanding the ability to sync and read their content across as many devices as possible. Finally, the subtle differences in UI and app design show that developers aren’t just thinking about building for different screen sizes, but around a whole range of factors that affect how, where, what and when we read.

For the new mobile reading, context becomes a cluster of these factors. Flipboard’s Mike McCue highlights a few of these in an interview with the Los Angeles Times‘ David Sarno:

It’s a mix of what’s going on in the world and what’s going on in your world, fused together. And it might seem weird that I’m looking at a picture of my daughters, and then the next flip I’m reading a story about Iran. But to me as a reader, when I’m standing in line waiting to get my coffee, those things are what I care about.

In order to build for this world, media companies, software developers, advertisers and even users have to think about context differently.

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