January 15, 2014 Last Updated 9:38 am

Facebook to launch news readers in the Flipboard mode, according to Re/code

Weakness of aggregated news readers is the lack of a barrier to entering the market, need for cooperation from publishers

The Re/code website is reporting that Facebook may soon launch a news reader product called Paper, a Flipboard-like news product. For tech sites, and Facebook fans, this is probably big news. For me, a publisher, Flipboard has never blown me away due to it having two major issues with its model (more on that in a minute).

The project is being led by Chris Cox, Facebook’s VP of product, and the interface designer is Mike Matas, according to reports. The guess is that Paper will be launched some time in January.

There is, of course, a bit of irony that the product would be called Paper, as no paper will be involved one guesses. But the idea is that Facebook would be created the modern morning newspaper, something its millions of users would open first thing every morning. As Facebook does, in fact, have millions of users, the chances that the product will work as a business are quite good. Advertising agencies should love this kind of product, just as they love Facebook.

Flip-splash-lgOne might wonder why Google hasn’t gone in this direction? Well, actually they have with their new Google Play Newsstand – less a Apple Newsstand competitor than a competitor to Flipboard. The new Flipboard competitor launched in November and little has been written about it since (search Google yourself for “Google Play Newsstand Flipboard”).

Back in July of 2010, when Flipboard first launched (see original splash page above) I wrote less than enthusiastically about the app. I wasn’t the only one: PCWorld called the app is “part revolution, part ridiculous.”

I had several objections to the app at launch but the biggest one was that app was simply a news reader and so there was no barrier to entry – that is, anyone could make a Flipboard-like product, and many have. Also, the whole project falls flat if publishers don’t voluntarily volunteer their content. Publishers wouldn’t, I had to conclude, be so stupid as to once again give away their content for free, would they?

I’m glad I don’t make predictions here at TNM because I would have been wrong – Flipboard has been a monstrous success to date. (I gave up making predictions in high school after I reviewed Happy Days and said it was a flop and would soon be cancelled. Yes, I’m old enough to have reviewed Happy Days in high school.)

I was wrong for two reasons: my faith in publishers was misplaced, and I did not understand that because the team behind Flipboard had close ties to Apple that Apple would promote the new app like crazy, driving downloads and making it an “essential” app to own.

Publishers continue to chase readers, even if it means giving their content to aggregators, so there is no reason to believe that any product from Facebook will have the full support of the publishing community. And because Facebook has so many users, Facebook will not need Apple to promote its new product.

But the idea that these products are so easy to launch remains: there is no barrier to entry. If Apple or Amazon or Microsoft or Samsung wants to launch a new Flipboard-like product, tie it to their platform, and solicit content providers, there is nothing to stop them. In short, there is nothing special about Flipboard from a technology standpoint. Flipboard owns no patent that I am aware of on news readers. (Flipboard has filed patent applications, including one for templated layouts, but I’m not sure they have been granted any of them.)

As a magazine publisher, I know that they thing that prevents new competitors from entering the space is the lack of good lists, an understanding of the market and its advertisers, production and distribution costs, and the need for informed editors. These usually prevent a flood of like-magazines entering any category, especially in B2B.

But what is the barrier to entry for a news reader app – whether for a device or online? Technically nothing. So what one needs is an already established audience. Facebook has this, so their chances are good, especially if publishers rush in.

If publishers, though, act more like television content providers, they will want the distributors of their content to pay a licensing fee. Show me the money up front and I’ll play along. We’ll see if some of the biggest news organizations go in this direction with Facebook.