Google's new Fast Flip is a half-baked attempt to solve two problems with one service, which isn't entirely a bad thing, since half-baked is in many cases better than raw.Speaking of raw, the main issue Google is trying to address is the feelings of newspaper and magazine publishers who have become convinced that Google is ruining their business. Never mind that Google actually drives traffic to their pages, and that print publications have been losing circulation since well before the dawn of the Internet Age due to their own stupid business practices, it's all Google's fault for showing snippets of their content online for free.
Google's new response is to provide a service that replicates the idea of flipping through physical newspapers and magazines through a new digital presentation, sharing revenue from whatever ads are shown on pages through which users flip and, perhaps, driving more traffic to the actual news sites.
Given that major publishers, including the New York Times, BBC, Washington Post, the Atlantic monthly and Newsweek were willing participants of this endeavor, it seems that the aggrieved are somewhat assuaged by this approach.
Sad to say, it won't change the dynamics of their business one iota.
The secondary issue is to give users a better way of browsing news. This prioritization of needs is in itself surprising, because Google usually puts user concerns first, and that isn't the case here; Fast Flip is too flawed to serve users well. (Yes, I realize it's a beta version, but Gmail was in beta until earlier this year, so with Google that label means nothing.)
Google's very premise about how the service replicates an off-line experience is essentially flawed, as Fast Flip is completely different from actually browsing a physical paper or magazine. It's more like running down the aisle of your newsstand, picking up a random magazine, glancing at it, and throwing it back in the general vicinity of its original location and then picking up another. Your newsstand guy isn't going to shout, "hey, this isn't a library!" He's going to reach for his baseball bat.
Typically, you browse a magazine or paper you already bought and stop at articles that interest you. You don't flip from one magazine to the next, unless you're waiting to get your hair cut.
The other significant issue is that there's no rhyme or reason to the order of stories, or any obvious sense of why particular pieces were picked at all. Stories aren't grouped by topic, and the order in which they're placed seems entirely arbitrary. Browsing might be an unhurried activity, but it isn't a thoughtless one.
There are also a few technical flaws. For instance, one story on Sen. Max Baucus's health care reform bill dated Sept. 16, 2009 is contained in a wrapper dated January 17, 1970. Has the debate really been going on that long?
Also, the Most Viewed and Recommended sections have virtually identical content.
Some of these might seem like quibbles, but they're disappointing coming from a company that's famous for putting user interests above all others.
I'll wait a few days and give Fast Flip another whirl, but I doubt I'll adopt it myself unless Google makes substantive changes that make the experience worthwhile.
That said, it's not an entirely pointless exercise, because Google engineers have demonstrated a new way of presenting information. As I said earlier, we browse papers we have in hand because we've already picked them.
The Atlantic's Niraj Chokshi, who likes Fast Flip much better than I do, notes that it could encourage newspapers to
experiment more with how they serve up content on their Web sites, with a focus on making the news accessible at a pace better suited to the Internet.
Now that's change I can believe in.