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iCurrent: A news aggregator that works

Aggregator does a great job of collecting all the news you want, and none you don't.

There have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of companies that have tried to create useful Web browser start pages and content aggregation sites. Popular themes include RSS readers, widget collection pages, and user-filtered news hubs. I've seen and tried a lot of them but rarely use them after a quick look. A new project, iCurrent, has potential to break out of that swamp for me and other users.

iCurrent contains no magical thinking or head-slappy reconceptualizations of news. It's just an aggregation service done well, with useful and clear features for users, and a straightforward sharing mechanism.

You tell iCurrent what you're interested in (examples: Windows 7, Formula 1, the Public Option), and the system will find stories on that topic from its solid lineup of sources, and create a "channel" for you that exists in one of its mainstream categories (in my examples: Technology, Sports, Health).

I found that the system picked good stories in my channels, and from good sources, and that it categorized them mostly correctly. It's easy enough to recategorize topics and add or remove news items. For example, I wanted news on "San Francisco Muni," but iCurrent originally put it in "Business." I moved it to "News." I also added CNET News to the "Sources" list for the topic, just in case we ever cover it.

The iCurrent main screen blends your custom content with news categories you haven't yet flagged (orange box). Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

On the front page of iCurrent, you get stories from your designated topics in the middle column of the page, and general and trending news on the right. The blend is important -- it keeps you informed on topics you might not be looking for. And it's how you build up your channels at first, by adding topics from the general stories you see.

If there's a channel you like, you can invite other users to it, and invite them to join iCurrent in the process. If you invite someone outright, you can also pre-populate their channel lineup with your channels. This is an important method to spread the love on iCurrent, as it's going to be hard, otherwise, for people to hear about this product. And, as CEO Ramana Rao told me, "Google will probably whack it," meaning that iCurrent stories won't show up in the Google index.

Not that they should. The service doesn't repackage stories, it just links to them. When you want to read a story, you get it from the original source, with a frame at the top (which can be disabled) that leads you back to iCurrent.

iCurrent rewards the engaged reader, but it doesn't require much work at all to make it a compelling experience. As I said at the top of this story, there's nothing really amazing here, just a good understanding of how today's users consume news, and enough technology to put that news in front of them.

It's fast and easy to add sources to the default list for any category. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

There are some improvements that I'd like to see: The interface is just a little busy when it comes to adding and removing sources and channels, although it's not unclear. More importantly, coverage of local news is not that good, which is a shame in a news reader that can be highly personalized. I'd also like to see a mobile version.

The product is in private beta now and should be available shortly. You can sign up to be alerted when it goes public. I recommend that.

Rao says iCurrent will make money from advertising. It might. It's more likely it'll make money when Yahoo or Microsoft buys it.

See also: Meehive, YourVersion.