News360 over-solves infoglut problem
Slick and smart tablet news app is part Techmeme, part feed reader, and probably a bit too clever for most users.
What do you want to read? Roman Karachinsky of News360 is pretty sure you don't really know. But he's got an app to get you what you're interested in anyway.
While traditional news readers, like Google Reader, let you easily subscribe to news sources, they're not too good at discovery, the art of finding stories and sources of stories that you'd probably like, but don't know about.
On the other hand, social sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, as well as industry-specific sites like Techmeme, can be great for discovery, since they point you to stories flagged as important by people in your network. But they won't help you sort through the boring items you need to see everyday but that nobody comments on.
Karachinsky's new app is a socially and algorithmically powered reader. Like Google Reader, FlipBoard, or my new favorite RSS tool, Reeder, it ingests stories and gives you the RSS versions of them, as well as links to the full Web pages. But unlike RSS or traditional subscription services, News360 breaks your news into categories, not sources; and it combines news from several sources for each story (like Techmeme or Google News does). For example, I'm looking at a "Politics: World" story about China and cyber attacks. There's one headline and links to four main sources of news, plus a link that says "70 more" if I want to see every single angle on the story.
The social angle is more interesting: News360 analyzes the content in your Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, and Google Reader accounts (if you let it) to determine what you are interested in, and what your friends are interested in. It surfaces stories it thinks you will like, under major topics and headings it divines for you. Karachinsky says that, unlike other services, you don't have to set it up. It knows what you like based on what you do online, and it can predict what you will like as well.
I am suspicious of pitches that involve AIs trying to peer into my psyche, with their claims of perfect understanding of my desires. News360 proves this out. I set up the News360 app and let it analyze my social accounts, and while it did a good job on several categories, on the "computers" category it made for me, it decided that the five topics I cared most about were Google Chrome, Web 2.0, CrunchPad, Oracle, and SAP. Two out of five, I'm afraid, is not so good. It's easy enough to edit the topics, but the whole idea here is that I shouldn't have to.
On the good side, though, this is the first news app I've tried that didn't try to create a personalized sports category for me (a topic I couldn't care less about). So props for that. Also, it is a beautiful application. The way it displays categories, summaries, and full source pages shows a gratifying respect for the content itself, the people who own it, and readers. The interface is fluid and intuitive.
Karachinsky does give a good pitch, but after using the app for a bit I'm not about to use it as a replacement to Reeder. Yes, it may highlight some stories I'd otherwise miss, but I don't think that's very likely. I have a well-curated list of the sites and feeds that matter the most to me, and a quick scan of them every day, plus monitoring Twitter and Google+, keeps me pretty well up to speed. I may be biased by my choice of profession, but I do think that people other than me cleave to brands in media as much as they do for their cars and diet colas. Karachinsky says, "It won't be possible to survive the onslaught of sharing without algorithmic help," and in theory I'd agree with him. In practice, though, most people I know are doing fine.
On the business side, Karachinsky says, "we're well-funded," and thus he's in no rush to turn on the money spigot. He does hope to partner with content providers, and somehow charge them for referral traffic to their sites. Or share in advertising revenue. On this bullet point, I am wholly unconvinced. The company does have a healthy enterprise business, though, and it's quite possible that working on the consumer-facing News360 product will have big dividends for the paid, corporate product.
The News360 app is available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Playbook. There's no desktop or Web-based version yet.