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Search Technology Behind iPad Magazine “Zite”
Discovery Engine Worio has taken its search technology and reinvented itself as an iPad magazine along the lines of Flipboard. Called Zite (after Zeitgeist), the iPad app uses the same search and machine learning capabilities developed at the British Columbia-based Worio to create a personalized magazine that “gets smarter” as you use it. (CEO Ali Davar says the company’s servers “are getting crushed” right now because of the publicity the app has received.)
It starts by taking Twitter and, curiously, Google Reader feeds — though not Facebook because of the “noise” in that feed — to create a personalized content base. I only used Twitter to set up my account, which made all the content about technology. However technology is not all I care about.
If the results are too narrow, as mine were, you can easily add any number of sections, including “business & investing,” “arts & culture,” “health & exercise,” among many others. You can also add customized sections (e.g., “Steve Jobs”), which are essentially persistent search queries. As you read and respond to articles Zite learns over time and makes the content more personal.
Overall, I found Zite to be more usable than Flipboard, though Flipboard is nicer to look at. Like most people I was kind of awed by Flipboard when it came out but don’t find myself using it because it’s cluttered and kind of “incoherent.” An actual magazine has a kind of flow and overall visual and editorial “coherence” that a collection of feeds, no matter how beautiful, cannot.
To a lesser degree this is my criticism of Zite as well. If it’s going to succeed it will have to become even more magazine-like and less a feed reader. I recognize that the point of Zite and Flipboard is that they make reading feeds much nicer. But if these apps are going to gain mainstream adoption they’ll have to move beyond where they are and make the user experience truly feel like a magazine.
In addition, AOL and Yahoo both have personalized iPad magazines on deck. And while tech bloggers will probably see the universe of competitors as Flipboard vs Zite vs AOL Editions vs Yahoo Livestand, it’s actually all these plus The Daily, USAToday, NY Times and all the news publications on the iPad.
Consumers ultimately won’t care about machine learning — they might not even care about “personalization” — they’ll care about how easy the app is to use and whether it looks good. Simplicity, UI and aesthetics cannot be underestimated.
Zeitgeist literally translates “time spirit.” Zite has got the technology right now it needs to develop more “spirit.”