Will Android tablets actually pose a threat to the iPad? Not this year, says Flipboard CEO Mike McCue.McCue thinks Android still has to work out a few kinks for tablets before it can challenge Apple.
He would know. As a developer of a popular iPad app, he’s taken a look at what Google has to offer. For now, he’s going to focus on iOS.
We spoke with McCue last week just before his company issued an update to its iPad app.
He also talked about raising money during a bubble time in tech, what it’s like being on the board of Twitter and much more. The full transcript of our chat follows.
In case you’ve never heard of it, Flipboard takes all of your social media streams — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever — and packages it into slick magazine style application.
Apple named it “iPad app of the year,” and it has been downloaded well over 1 million times.
Here’s our Q&A with McCue:
Business Insider: When you started doing this, Flipboard was pretty unique. Now there’s Zite, AOL is coming out with Editions, and who know what else is coming. How do you guys view the competition?
Mike McCue: The iPad is creating a new format for reading content. One of the things that’s happening as a result is the world of personalised news aggregators, which is a category that’s been around for quite some time, is getting new life. New products like Zite, AOL Editions, Pulse, that’ve come out.
Flipboard’s doing something totally different. We’re focused on social. personalised news aggregators are geared around connecting you to news sources, we’re about connecting you to your friends. To people you’re inspired by. To people that you’re following on Facebook and Twitter. So it’s a very different model. One of the things that Flipboard is great at is certainly looking at the news in a realtime format, which a lot of the personal news aggregators don’t really focus on, so you can see things right up to the minute. But you can also see videos, photographs, photo albums, status updates, tweets that are coming from the people you care most about. And you can do that across a whole range of social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Google Reader, and we’ll be adding more over time.
BI: What do you make of the Xoom tablet, the other non-iPad tablets?
MM: I think that the new iPad is really going to be a very successful product. There’s going to be millions of new iPads sold as a result. I think that it’s going to be a long road for the other tablets out there. They’re going to need to figure out a way to totally out do Apple. Maybe someone can do it, but I don’t think anyone’s managed to yet. As a result, I think Apple will continue to have majority position for tablets this year.
BI: Do you see it being worth your energy to approach Android tablets?
MM: We are focused on the iPad. We have so much work to do just on the product for the iPad. We don’t have time to think about any other platform, let alone another tablet. That’s been our model, to continually enhance the product we have on the iPad. We’re going to continue to do that for a while until we feel like another platform makes sense. Then we’ll have to look and see what other platform has the critical mass and volume and capability supporting what we want to do.
BI: Why do you think the iPad will be above other platforms?
MM: I think that it’s still early, but if you take a look at the world of the smartphone market, what you’ll see is that tablets are very fragmented. Are there going to be lots of different form factors that Apple doesn’t supply that gives an opportunity for new providers to come out and address that need? With the iPod and music player market, you didn’t see as much fragmentation. And as a result, Apple ended up having the bulk of the market. I think the question is is the tablet market going to end up looking like the smartphone market or like the music player market? I think it’s shaping up to be much more like the music player market.
I think Android is a very strong platform with a lot of users on the smartphone side. It’s just getting started on the tablet side. That’s a sizable market. I think ultimately developers have to figure out how to address both iOS and Android for smartphones. But the tablet world is evolving differently.
BI: Is that because of carrier distribution?
MM: The iPad works on the two major carriers, so there’s not so much fragmentation in the market that you saw with smartphones early on. The iPhone only worked with AT&T for its first several years. So I think that’s a good example. Also the form factor itself. Some people really want to have a keyboard with their smartphone. I think the tablet is such a wonderfully simple form factor I’m not sure if there’s such a need for a lot of variety. The only real question is probably size. is there a place for a smaller tablet? I think the screen size chosen for the iPad is perfect for publishers to render content beautifully, for games to be played. I’m sure there’s a lot that can be done with the form factor to still orient around that screen size to make it smaller and thinner, which is what you’re seeing with the iPad 2.
BI: What drives downloads for you?
MM: More than anything else it’s people talking about Flipboard. People tweet “Hey, what should I put on my iPad?” and people tweet back “Angry Birds and Flipboard.” If that’s all I had on my iPad I’d be perfectly happy.
I think that there’s a word of mouth thing that we’ve been able to leverage over the last several months and has been fantastic. Increasingly what you’ll see is that what we’re doing with our publishing partners, that will increasingly drive our downloads as well. So for example, we went live with Rolling Stone a few weeks ago. We’re also live with Wired and Pictory, so that will continue to drive awareness about Flipboard for people to download it onto their iPads. You’ll increasingly see more viral capabilities that will be built into Flipboard over time. Also, of course, Apple featuring us in the App Store was a big break too. App of the Year and other awards we’ve gotten have been a great driver of downloads.
BI: Switching gears, you’re on the board of Twitter, right?
BI: What do you think of Twitter’s business and where it’s going with ads? What do you think of the reaction to the dickbar, as it was called?
MM: Twitter’s business is doing great. They’re absolutely on fire. With respect to the iPhone client, Twitter knows that was not a good. They’ve got a new version coming out where they’ve got the situation on lock.
BI: What do you see developing into business for Twitter? Do you think it’s those ads that integrate into the Twitter stream?
MM: Well, Twitter’s talked a lot about this. Twitter is still in the mode of building a great user experience. They do have the ability to do promoted tweets, promoted trends. Those are all things that are still pretty early, still works in progress. I’m probably not the right person to talk to about specifics. You should talk to someone operationally involved there.
BI: Sure. How long have you been on the board?
MM: Since December.
BI: How did that work? How did they approach you? How did you get picked to be on the board?
MM: I was spending time with the Twitter guys for about a year, year and a half prior. Just helping them think through the business model stuff. Been a super-informal but passionate outside advisor. Ultimately when they did the financing round, they asked me to be the board. I was just thrilled about that.
BI: What do you think of Dick as a CEO?
MM: Dick’s doing great. There is so much happening with Twitter. The company is growing at such a tremendous pace. Dick is doing a great job at prioritizing all the various things that need to happen. It’s like flying a plane at supersonic speed. The amount of things you have to think about in a given day is pretty incredible. Dick’s doing a good job focusing on the things that matter most.
BI: Speaking of raising money, is Flipboard looking for money again soon?
MM: I wouldn’t be surprised if we raised more money.
BI: What do you think of all this bubble talk? Is now a good time to be raising money for companies? Does it seem like an easy time historically?
MM: We are at a moment in time where the venture capital flow for startups is at a level we haven’t seen since 1999-2000. So that is obviously a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to raise capital. But that said, the lessons of the early 2000s are still fresh in everyone’s minds.
But, it’s not like you have dotcom businesses funded right now at the same levels. You have to have a viable business with a lot of traction. The reason why we’re seeing this uplift in venture capital is that we are at a moment in time with technology that is incredibly promising.
If you look at the tablet, what that does for the role of computing and how that changes the game, it’s pretty astonishing. And if you look at what’s happening in the smartphone world with things like the App Store, nothing like that’s ever happened before. And then you take a look at what’s happening with social media, and the whole basic premise of browsing the web and being transformed by social media, these are all insanely powerful trends that are fundamentally transforming the tech industry. As well as other industries, like publishing. As a result, you’re seeing an opportunity for new startups to innovate in these areas and leverage some of these trends. There’s a lot of people who believe that this is a formative moment where the next Googles, the next Yahoos, the next Facebooks are being created right now.