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App of the Year
[January 17, 2011]

App of the Year

Jan 16, 2011 (The Press Democrat - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- A little over a decade ago, Evan Doll was quoting one of his heroes, Apple founder Steve Jobs, in his graduation speech from Healdsburg High School.

Now, Doll has helped devise one of the most heralded tech products of the past year -- with Jobs himself paying a visit to his office to see what he and his colleagues were working on.

To get there, Doll quit a dream job at Apple designing iPhones and co-founded a Palo Alto startup in 2009 with no clear product and an uncertain future.

The result: Flipboard, a smash-hit application released in July that uses the elegance of Apple's iPad and the explosive popularity of social networking to create a personalized news magazine.

Time magazine named it one of its top five tech inventions of 2010.

Flipboard is a free application designed for the iPad that scours people's social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to discover news articles, photo updates, and videos that friends have shared or recommended online.

The application then takes that content -- be it newly uploaded family photos from a sibling or a news article re-tweeted by a co-worker -- and compiles it into a stylish digital magazine.

Imagine if every Vanity Fair issue were laid out uniquely for each reader, but instead of Hollywood actors spread across the page it had photos of a niece's recent prom party or an article from the local paper about the boss's Rotary Club fundraiser. That is Flipboard -- news with a personal touch.

And yes, it might also display photos of movie stars and swimsuit models, or news about a recent national tragedy or tough economic news. But the content is always tailored to the individual, depending on what a person's social network is buzzing about.

Wired magazine called it "a godsend for readers." Apple crowned Flipboard as its coveted App of the Year.

Some media publishers are equally enthusiastic, partnering with the company to change the way they deliver information to readers.

Doll, 29, who co-founded the company with Silicon Valley veteran Mike McCue, 43, found himself at the center of a tech craze after Flipboard launched in July.

Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher invested in the company. Famed tech investor John Doerr dropped by Flipboard's Palo Alto office one day with coffee for the bedraggled team. Even rap icon MC Hammer popped in to say hi after he spoke at nearby Stanford.

"It was totally surreal," Doll said last week, sipping tea at a Palo Alto coffee shop that doubles as a conference room for the rapidly growing company. "I'm still not exactly sure how to process it." Long hours. Hard work. Commitment.

Despite the down economy, the staple ingredients of pursuing the American Dream still paid off for Doll.

"We pretty much worked nonstop between March and July," Doll said.

Flipboard is Doll's first startup.

After graduating from Stanford in 2003 with a degree in computer science, Doll landed a job as an engineer at Apple, where he helped design the original iPhone. Those were good times for Doll. Working at Apple was his dream job. It was something he had aspired to since the early 1990s, when in middle school he started attending meetings of the North Coast Mac Users Group in Santa Rosa.

"He was one of those students I'll always remember," said Gale Bach, a former high school math teacher who now teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College. "He was not only great at math, he was a great person." When Doll talks about working at Apple, it is with the same wistfulness a jock might use while reflecting on his high school football team.

"Leaving Apple was no easy thing," Doll said over his steaming tea. "I was leaving a company I almost had a spiritual kinship with." But the prospect of striking out on his own intrigued Doll. He began brainstorming with friends and meeting with investors. Then someone set him up on essentially a blind business date with McCue in June 2009. It was inspiration at first sight.

"There was an immediate connection," said McCue, who co-founded Tellme Networks, which was sold to Microsoft in 2007 for close to $800 million. "As soon as we met, I knew I wanted to do another startup." They began brainstorming ideas for a new company.

Within a month of that first coffee-shop meeting in San Francisco, Doll quit Apple. The pair had not even settled on an idea yet.

"The idea is secondary," Doll said. "It's easier to change the idea than the people." They just knew they wanted to create something together that would change the world.

"You may as well go big," said McCue, Flipboard's chief executive officer, "because it's going to take the same amount of work." They spent the next several months brainstorming, and by October 2009 they had settled on a problem they wanted to solve: information overload. People were spending more time online, reeling as the constant flood of breaking news, Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates began overheating their mental circuit boards.

Clay Shirky, a renowned philosopher on the Internet's impact and professor at New York University, has dubbed the phenomenon "filter failure." Many people no longer rely on newspaper editors to sift through the day's events to present the most relevant news. Instead, readers are tapping directly into the massive stream of daily information online, and despite the advantages, many are getting overwhelmed.

By January 2010, Doll, McCue and a couple of engineers were cranking away in their newly leased office space trying to figure out how to filter information based on social networks. Three months later they had come up with a working prototype, and were searching for funding.

"It was completely unrecognizable from what we have today," Doll said.

A breakthrough came when the company hired Marcos Weskamp, a designer who had become fascinated with how to graphically display the world's news and in 2004 built, which is a heatmap of the day's top trending stories.

"I really saw the info overload coming early," Weskamp said.

Weskamp raised the level of design at Flipboard, and when the company launched in July, it received glowing reviews for its elegance and intuitive interface. To browse content, people flip through the virtual magazine with a whisk of the finger across the iPad's surface, emulating the motion of flipping a magazine page.

In recent months, the company has announced trial partnerships with publishers including ABC News, Bon Appetit magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post. The publishers agreed to have more of their content displayed on Flipboard, which otherwise shows only the first three paragraphs of a story and then re-directs interested readers to the publication's website. Advertisers participating in the test include Pepsi, Gatorade, Showtime, Levi's, Hilton Worldwide and GE.

The company now has 25 employees, and has raised more than $10 million in funding.

Flipboard still has no revenue model in place. But plans are in the works, and include the possibility of subscription services or revenue sharing with content producers, Doll said. The iPad's vibrant display allows advertisers to bring the artistic beauty of the ad campaigns found in Vanity Fair, or portrayed in the TV show "Mad Men," to the digital environment for the first time, Doll said.

"We're talking about rebooting digital advertising," he said.

While Doll and his companions continue their campaign to change the publishing world, one woman has already taken news of their efforts to heart.

"As a parent, you're really proud," said Mary Doll, a nurse who works at Healdsburg Hospital. "I go to work and bore everyone with news about my kids." Thanks to Flipboard, many of her 88 Facebook friends might already have heard.

You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 703-1577 or

To see more of The Press Democrat, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2011, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit

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