I don’t want this to be the type of acquisition announcement that glosses over all bad news, and there is some: the Zite app is not going to be around forever. Our goal is to get the things that are great about Zite into Flipboard before shutting it down.
On the one hand, I’m really pleased about this deal, because Zite feels like a small team who make a really excellent product. I use Zite several times a week, and like a well-curated newsletter, I find several things every time that I follow up and look into. It’s gotten really good at presenting me stuff that a) I’ve not seen elsewhere and b) I wish I had.
This flies in the face of similar offerings I’ve tried in the past – and I’ve tried a lot. Almost always, there is a very long ‘learning’ process, where you teach the app your interests, and it starts to figure out what to show and – probably most crucially – what not to.
Other apps and services have tried to do this, but have always taken too long to do so. Zite did so very quickly, and always seemed to get better and better at it. To the point where using Zite is now a reliably good way for me to find new interesting stuff that I haven’t seen on Twitter or Feedly.
Content/curation/etc aside, the Zite iPad app is pretty decent. It’s quick, the navigation is natural and smooth, and it has the right combination of feed parsing skills to display syndicated content, backed up with a smooth browser experience for showing content that can’t be shown natively.
Further, Zite’s sharing tools are exactly as they should be, whether for bragging to your pals that “you” found this cool story, or for drop-kicking into your read-it-later app of choice.
So that’s Zite, and I’m happy to hear they’ve been acquired as they make a good product I enjoy using.
As for Flipboard, I have very mixed feelings. Pretty much ever since Flipboard launched, I’ve been interested in what they do. The app has always been unique and innovative, and for many types of content, it works really well. Much like Zite, the sharing tools and built-in browser and all that stuff works really nicely, and indeed intuitively.
However, for some reason, I don’t find myself returning to Flipboard with anything like the regularity that I do Feedly or Zite.
There’s something about the arbitrary nature of dividing up content into flippable sections that I find both cute and annoying. Sometimes what I want is simply one, clean, long sheet of words with the pictures in the right places, much as if I’d run the article through Safari’s ‘Reader’ tool, or viewed it in Instapaper or Pocket.
Instead, you get swishy, intelligent article indexes which are nice to browse (and a good aid for skim-reading), but which lead to fake ‘pages’ where content is cut up into sections and columns which aren’t always the best layout. This is especially infuriating when viewing newspaper content in Flipboard, as the layout attempts to mimic something which, on the web, we’re trying to get away from.
Ironically, when content can’t be parsed and displayed using Flipboard’s native flipping layout, it defaults to the built-in browser which tends to simply display the content in… one long sheet of words and pictures.
So Flipboard is an app I find myself returning to once every few months, adding and removing content sources depending on my current tastes, then using for a bit and then… Stopping using for a bit.
If I try and use it to follow specific feeds (say, my Instagram feed), I find Flipboard adds too much chrome and cruft, making it an ugly experience. And that’s to say nothing of the weird, mixed-metaphor ‘magazine’ curation they’ve baked into Flipboard – something I don’t like, and can’t seem to avoid when using the app.
One thing that would absolutely help my use of Flipboard is better discovery. It currently feels like you need to know what you want to read in Flipboard. You add sources, or follow ‘sections’ which can often be too broad, which leads to you needing to crop out sources within those sections. It also suffers from the usual heavy slant on American sources that so many news apps struggle with. (Incidentally, whether through luck or engineering, Zite very quickly got very good at giving me mainly British sources, as well as a handful of New Zealand sources, along with a healthy dose of international/US sources.)
Flipboard’s blog announcement of the acquisition mentions this directly:
We acquired Zite from CNN to address something we’ve heard from a lot of you: although you can already read thousands of sources from over 20 regions on Flipboard, you want easier and better ways to discover content about the things that matter to you. Adding Zite’s expertise in personalization and recommendations to Flipboard’s product experience and powerful curator community will create an unparalleled personal magazine for our millions of readers.
So: if they can bring Zite’s discovery and learning algorithms to Flipboard, I will almost certainly get better use out of it. I will still struggle with the skeuomorphism (hey, remember when this word was in every second blog post shortly after iOS 7 was announced?) of ‘flippable’ content that doesn’t need flipping. But I will definitely be happy to get Zite-like discoveries through Flipboard.
It’ll just suck when Zite’s very competent app gets switched off.