Summary:

New Zite CEO Mark Johnson wasn’t totally surprised that his six-person startup received a cease-and-desist letter a few weeks ago from publi…

Zite CEO Mark Johnson
photo: Tom Krazit

New Zite CEO Mark Johnson wasn’t totally surprised that his six-person startup received a cease-and-desist letter a few weeks ago from publishers peeved about its iPad news-reading app, but he was a little taken aback at how quickly it arrived. In an interview Wednesday with mocoNews, he chalked it up to a lack of outreach on Zite’s part prior to launching as well as the strong growth of those using its app to bring a magazine-like experience to the iPad.

Strongly worded legal documents have a way of bringing people together, for better or worse, and Johnson said that the company is now meeting with publishers on a more cordial basis, discussing ways that they can all benefit from the shift of reading habits from print and Web to tablets. Zite drew attention following its iPad app launch in early March because of its technology-based approach to finding articles (Johnson is a veteran of Microsoft’s Bing team, and founder Ali Davar worked with researchers at the University of British Columbia to develop the recommendation algorithms) and because it formatted the articles in a reader-first way that made them very easy to read by cropping the ads: hence the legal response from publishers such as the Associated Press and the Washington Post.

Over 100,000 people downloaded the app in the first week it was available, Johnson said, and Zite has been able to retain more than half of those who have tried the app over the last two weeks. On Monday, in response to the cease-and-desist letter, Zite changed the way that the app displays content to initially present it in “Web mode,” rather than the cropped version, although it still allows users to switch to the cropped version once the article has loaded.

“One of the problems was that publishers saw what we were doing as the end game. We want to find a way to work with publishers,” Johnson said. There is no ad model at present on Zite but the company is now talking with the publishing industry about putting one together: “even publishers we talk to realize that the reading mode is a better way to display a page,” he said.

Zite has no plans to expand beyond the iPad at this point, Johnson said. It’s focusing now on trying to add features to the app without ruining the minimalistic user experience that it chose for the launch, as well as continuing to improve the recognition technology at the heart of the app.

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