Scribd Launches New App for Reading Online News

Pitches need for yet another format

San Francisco startup Scribd seems to have built a thriving Web publishing site, where people and companies can share everything from individual documents to e-books, which the company says is visited by 75 million readers every month. But Scribd is now adding a second option for online reading with an application called Float that it's releasing today for the iPhone and the Web.

Co-founder and chief technology officer Jared Friedman described it as an attempt to create the ideal reading environment on any device. It sounds like a competitor to popular reading apps like Instapaper and Flipboard, but Friedman said that with Float, Scribd tried to encompass the entire browsing and reading experience in a way that hasn't been done before. So yes, it allows readers to save articles found online for later reading on their phones, like Instapaper, and yes, it allows you to browse reading recommendations from your social network, like Flipboard.

The most important aspect of Float may be the reading experience itself. Adweek wasn't able to test the app on its own, but Friedman did run through a demo—in action, article text is displayed in a clean, readable format with all the other page elements stripped away. If you zoom in or out, the text automatically reformats itself to fit the screen, so that you aren't trapped in what Friedman calls "scrolling hell," where you need to keep scrolling left and right and up and down to read all the text. Even PDF-format documents, which are normally locked into a specific layout, can be converted into a Float-friendly reading experience (although there are risks of mistranslation).

For now, Float is mainly designed for reading news articles, although Friedman didn't rule out the possibility of adding other media in the feature. The company has partnered with more than 150 publishers at launch, including the Associated Press, The Atlantic, Time, and Wired. These publishers have agreed to display their full articles in Float, rather than the abbreviated versions that are sometimes shared on RSS feeds, and then on the news apps that pull their content from RSS. Eventually, publishers will be able to make money from Float through advertising or subscriptions, but Friedman wouldn't reveal any details about how those deals will be structured.

Besides the iPhone, Scribd plans to release apps for the iPad (where it will compete more directly with Flipboard, which is currently iPad-only) and Android phones. This app-centric approach may seem a bit strange for a company that vocally embraced the HTML5 Web format and the possibilities it provides for mobile websites rather than apps. Friedman said he chose this strategy because HTML5 couldn't quite meet his needs, but he added that Float is built on top of the company's HTML5 platform, so it can switch to a more Web-centric approach if necessary. 

As for the existing Scribd website, Friedman said it won't be abandoned, but it has always been more focused on publishers than readers. Over time, he predicted that Float would become readers' window onto most of the material published on Scribd. In fact, more than 10 million documents on Scribd have already been converted into the Float format.