With Float, Scribd Hopes To Become The Netflix Of Reading

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It’s a big day for online document sharing and social reading site Scribd. Today at Fortune’s Brianstorm conference, CEO Trip Adler will be revealing a major initiate that introduces a suite of new products and an entirely new brand: meet Float.

Float is Scribd’s first iPhone application. It’s also an entirely new web app, and there will be additional mobile applications coming later this year. It’s part Instapaper, part RSS reader — and it also ties in nicely with your social graph to make it easy to consume all the links your friends are sharing. And Scribd has lined up 150 publisher partners to help get the app off to a running start.

Adler says the idea behind Float is to give readers a single app to consume all of the reading material they might be interested in, be it PDFs, news articles from traditional publishers, or blog posts. So content can be accessed from a few sources. First, as you’d expect, the app is tightly integrated with your Scribd account, so you’ll automatically have access to your Scribd docs. There’s also a ‘social’ tab, which lets you quickly read excerpts of any articles and docs your friends have shared on Facebook, Twitter, or Scribd. And there’s a ‘Reading List’ that’s a lot like Instapaper — you can add a bookmarklet to your browser that lets you ‘Float’ whatever page you’re viewing. And then there’s the publisher tab.

Scribd has 150 partners, including The Atlantic, Time, Salon (and, disclosure, TechCrunch) who are offering full-text versions of their articles within the mobile app — you browse through a list of publishers, tap the ones you like, and you’ll see a list of the articles they’re offering. This content is all optimized for the mobile screen and does not currently include advertising, so it’s a pretty optimal reading experience. Note that while these publisher articles are full-text, the articles viewed via the social channel are excerpts (unless they’re from a publisher partner). Scribd had considered offering full-text versions of these shared links too, but decided against it.

The Float name stems in part from the way the app lets you scroll through text. Most document viewers display content that’s either paginated (you flip between pages by swiping horizontally) or scrolls upward (like in a browser) — Float will do either of them on the fly. Want to jump to a full screen of new content? Swipe left. Want to nudge the text just a little further up? You can do that too.

This floating text effect probably isn’t game changing, but it’s pretty nifty — and the app includes plenty of other nice touches, like a variety of themes (light mode, dark mode, etc), and font resizing that doesn’t muck up the text. In fact, the app generally looks quite polished. Another very handy feature: the app will locally store any content you’ve started reading, and it’ll also pre-fetch content when it can.

So, how exactly is Scribd going to make money off of this? Later this year, the company has plans to roll out two paths to monetization: it’ll run ads against some of the content that’s available. Publishing partners that are distributing full-text versions of their content will get a rev-share on these ads.

And then there’s the more ambitious plan: Scribd wants to use Float to become the ‘Netflix of reading’. Pay one flat fee, and you’ll be able to access content that’s typically behind a pay wall from a variety of publishers. This will, of course, take the cooperation of the publishers. But it’s something that could have broad appeal — it’s hard enough to get people to pull out their credit cards to jump over one paywall, and it’s certainly not something they’re going to want to do for every newspaper or online magazine they want to access.