Google launched a news-reading app called Currents on Thursday, something it has been working on for some time — ever since it was a much-rumored skunkworks project called Propeller — and much of the coverage of the new app has called it a challenger to existing tablet and iPhone news-readers like Flipboard and Zite. But while Google Currents is superficially similar to these other services, there are some important differences that make me wonder whether Google really understands how media has changed and is changing. For a company that’s usually so forward-thinking, Currents as it stands now is more than a little disappointing.
Like Flipboard and Zite, the new Google offering (available here — U.S. only at this point) allows you to pull in content from a number of sources and then read through it in a kind of digital-magazine format on a tablet or an iPhone or other mobile device (my colleague Darrell has a hands-on look at the app). As mobile media consumption becomes an ever-increasing part of our lives, this kind of app is becoming the way that many people take in a lot of their news — at least those who wish to browse rather than simply following their favorite news sources on Twitter or Facebook. And Flipboard has shown, particularly with its excellent new iPhone app, that this can be done in a way that’s just as visually appealing as a traditional magazine, if not more so.
Currents is missing some crucial elements
Google’s app, while well-designed in many ways, lacks much of the polish and user-interface elements that make Flipboard so compelling (to me at least). And at least in my limited usage of it so far, it doesn’t even manage to rise to the level that Zite provides — and Zite, a Canadian startup that was acquired by CNN earlier this year for an estimated $20 million, is much more utilitarian in its approach than Flipboard (Zite also just released an iPhone app). It’s entirely possible Google’s app will improve over time, and it does offer some interesting features — such as the ability to sync the content you’ve read between devices — but I still think it’s missing some crucial aspects.
For example, Google Currents is social in at least one way, in that it lets you share articles you read to Twitter and Facebook, provided you click through the default menu (which promotes sharing on Google’s own Google+ network first). But it isn’t social in another important sense: Unlike both Flipboard and Zite, it doesn’t pull in your Twitter lists or streams from those you follow, or content from your Facebook social graph. In other words, you can push content out to these networks, but you can’t pull content in from them and view it inside your news reader. To me, that means Currents is only one-half of a proper social-news app — and not even the most interesting half.
Why isn’t Google helping us filter content?
The second element Google Currents seems to be missing is recommendations or some form of smart filtering of content, apart from the limited amount that appears in the “trending” section. This is something Zite has pursued aggressively, both via its algorithms and through explicit recommendations from users — thumbs up, thumbs down, etc. — and is likely one of the reasons why CNN was interested in acquiring it. Flipboard hasn’t done much in terms of recommendations so far, but has begun to do so through its iPhone app “Cover Stories” feature, which apparently learns based on a user’s activity.
As we’ve noted many times, the massive rivers of information that pour into our lives from all kinds of sources makes the need for a smart filter more compelling every day. That seems like a problem virtually tailor-made for a company like Google, which has boatloads of programmers who specialize in filtering and understanding massive amounts of real-time data, yet the company has done virtually nothing in that space — despite having a long-established platform called Google News to draw from and build on. The only thing Google has done that seems remotely interesting is adding +1 recommendations to Google News, but even that seems designed mostly to promote the Google+ network.
An app like Currents should — particularly if it wants to actually be competitive with Flipboard or Zite — be pulling in news content from every source available, especially real-time sharing networks like Twitter and Facebook. Then it should apply smart filters and recommendations to those streams, to help news consumers sort and understand that information better. Instead, Currents feels about as innovative as your garden-variety app from a traditional magazine — in other words, not very innovative at all. More than anything, it feels like a giant missed opportunity.