December 12, 2011, 8:16 AM — Last week Google unveiled Currents, an online magazine app for iOS and Android (US only for now). It took approximately 6.3 milliseconds before an Internet denizen sniffed dismissively and muttered "Bah, an inferior Flipboard clone." That sentiment was taken up by many in the days that followed.
This makes me sad.
I think skepticism is a self-defense mechanism for those of us who spend a lot of time online. The sheer number of new services and apps that cross our screens every day means that we don't have time to look very carefully at most of them. So we glance at them, mentally hold them up to something that seems similar and that we're happy with, deem the newcomer inferior and that lets us toss it aside without worrying we're missing out.
In the case of Google Currents I decided to keep an open mind and dig in a bit deeper and I'm liking what I see. Am I saying Currents is better than Flipboard (or Pulse, or Taptu, or...fill in your favorite 'turn the web into a magazine' app). No, I am not. I'm saying the Currents is a different kind of product.
To be sure, you can use it like those other apps. Just add your RSS feeds to it and Currents will format them all nicely and let you browse them. And if you're already happy doing that with Flipboard, it'd be silly to switch to Currents to do the same thing.
But here's what most people are missing. Currents isn't just an app. It's a self-publishing service and delivery system. Anyone can create an Edition in the Currents Producer and publish it. So what's an Edition? Well it can be a lot of things. I run a personal blog, talk a lot on Google+ and have a YouTube Channel. So I created an Edition that pulls in blog posts, Google+ posts and YouTube videos into a single magazine. It was simple to do; you don't need any tech skills. If you don't have a source of content, you can even create new content right in the Currents Producer. Think of it like Wordpress for app-based magazines.
You can go as simple (leaving defaults in place) or as elaborate as you like, creating tables of content, styling what articles look like on various devices and so on. If you're pulling content from an existing source you can curate what gets included and what doesn't. You can even include content from Google Docs if you'd like.
And then you can protect it all. For each Section you create, you can control who has access to modify it, and who has access to read it. If you're a small company you can create and distribute a company newsletter through Currents, and you can leave parts of it public and parts for employees only. You can skip the annual family update email and instead create a mini-zine to send to everyone, and be sure no one but the family can read it.
Now as a friend of mine noted, Google does a lousy job of exposing all this functionality; the average user is going to download the Currents app and, yup, write it off as a Flipboard clone, particularly if said user just fills it up with RSS feeds. Google launched with (it claims) 150 Editions from established publications and those are a better place to start using the app.
And I'll also say Google is shooting themselves in the foot in some ways, like featuring the "Trending" section on the app. All that does is lead to a bunch of article stubs; if you want to read more you have to follow a link to the website that the article came from. The Curators section is weak for the same reason; these are just shares from Google+, most of which require another click to get to the meat of the article. It's almost like Google put this stuff in there because people expect this kind of stuff, but in my opinion all this does is reinforce the "Flipboard Clone" idea.
Anyway, if you want a way to read RSS feeds, stick with what you've got. But if you're interested in a unique micro-publishing system (complete with Googly Analytics integration) and you're comfortable assuming your audience carries iOS or Android devices, then check out Currents. But don't stop with the app; check out the Producer too. It took me about half an hour to pull together the first cut of my Edition, though I've been tweaking it since. Take it for a spin and see if it's something that can solve a problem in your life.
Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.