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Zite still believes: News app moves to Windows Phone

The popular news-reading app is expanding to the Microsoft platform, and Zite's CEO is pretty stoked despite the operating system's lack of popularity so far.

Josh Long/CNET

Zite, the app designed to get you reading more of what you like, has moved to the Windows Phone 7 platform.

Yeah, you read that right.

While it may seem strange to expand the popular CNN-owned news app to a platform branded with the stigma of being the uncool kid at the mobile handset party, Zite CEO Mark Johnson sees it as a way to move into a market that Microsoft -- and Nokia -- are working hard to build.

"I think there's some real merit to what Microsoft is doing in the marketplace right now. Microsoft isn't known for doing things with simplicity and they've worked really hard at that," he said in an interview with CNET.

On top of that, it's a personal triumph for Johnson. A very cool geek and former Microsoft employee, Johnson has been a Windows Phone user since November 2010 and owns a Nokia 710.

He's been using Zite on his personal phone for months now and he's clearly excited about the change -- enthusiastically talking about how he read about armadillos for hours one day because of a random article Zite chose for him. He's spoiled by it, really.

"It's weird to go to a non-personalized application now," he said. "It's really frustrating -- why doesn't this app know who I am? Clearly I don't want to read about Kim Kardashian right now."


Before the Windows app, Johnson used Zite on his iPad, but having it on his mobile phone means he reads more and finds more varied topics because he often chooses articles based on what he is doing at the moment -- fitness articles while at the gym, tech news while he's getting to work. He calls Zite a "lean-back" reading experience, which means it pulls up articles you didn't even know you were interested in reading.

"What we're really trying to get away from is information overload," he said.

Instead of the constant flow of the Twitter stream or a behemoth RSS feed reader, users can look at things that are tailored to them based on who they connect with, what types of stories they post, etc. The app separates articles into more than 2,000 categories articles and uses an algorithm that draws from a user's Twitter and Google Reader.

"We look at millions of articles a day, analyze those articles heavily -- what's the publication, who was the article written by," Johnson said. "We know a lot about the article, we also know a lot about it on the social Web."

Stepping back from the app's function, I asked Johnson why it's a good move for Zite to go to the Windows platform.

"Our goal is to be on every mobile platform, and this was a logical next step for us," he said, adding. "And of course, I'm personally very happy about it."

Microsoft and Nokia lent the Zite team support for technical training and also provided code and design clinics to aid the app's development. As a developer, Johnson said working with Microsoft's app's guidelines was a plus because the main rule is simplicity.

"I think that's one of the areas where Windows has done a fantastic job," he said.

The Windows Phone platform does not feature the multiple windows iOS or Android has, which Johnson said he thinks helps the Zite app experience.

"You definitely lose a bit in interaction, but what you gain is an easier interface for the customer," he said, adding that the Window's font is more elegant and easy to read -- an important element for a reading app.

Additionally, the marketplace is not crowded like iOS or Android, which Johnson sees as an opportunity.

"The marketplace is not as crowded right now, so I'm really excited to get in front of the news market because when we launch we will have the best news-reading application on Windows Phone," he said.


While there is an uncrowded market, that also means a user base that is a fraction of what iOS and Android has, according to Hugues De La Vergne, an analyst for research firm Gartner. Those two operating systems account for about 85 percent of the market in North America.

But there is still hope for the Windows Phone to gain popularity in the next few years and establish itself as a distant third in the smartphone race, De La Vergne said, particularly with Research In Motion's poor performance of late.

"RIM's opened up the door for Microsoft, and my opinion is this is its best opportunity in the last 10 years to become a very distant third in the mobile OS market," De La Vergne said, speaking specifically about the North America market. "I think if they can build up credibility in the mobile space with Windows 8 in tablets, then ideally, they can extend some of the success in that space and into the smartphone as well."

According to Gartner's analysis, Windows Phone is showing some potential. The operating system captured 1.9 percent of the market in 2011, but is on track to reach 11 or 13 percent by 2016.

"Considering where they've been historically -- low single-digit market share -- growing to a double-digit market share is a step in the right direction," De Le Vergne said.

Johnson certainly believes so. He said both Microsoft and Nokia are putting a lot of money into developing the platform.

"Seven years ago, the most popular phone was the Motorola Razr. It's easy to forget those days because they seem so distant in such a iPhone dominated world...Much like I never count Google out (and) I never count Apple out -- I never count Microsoft out," Johnson said. "As a former internal employee, I can tell you Microsoft is a very persistant company. When Microsoft wants to do something, they're willing to go after it and willing to pursue it beyond what the market deems reasonable. And, Microsoft usually gets what they want in the end."

It's hard not to catch Johnson's enthusiasm for his former employer and the Windows Phone operating system. But, as the numbers show, the OS still has quite a lot of ground to make up before it can get anywhere near the competition.