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Most traditional media companies are still trying to handle the disruption that the web has caused in their business models and content strategies, and if they think about mobile at all it is via their iPhone or iPad app, or an awkwardly stripped-down mobile version of their website. But others are more than happy to try and conquer this new frontier: Prismatic, a San Francisco-based startup that is trying to build a customized newspaper for the digital age, has just launched an iPhone app that it says gives users a truly mobile-native way of reading the news, without all the pain they have gotten used to from traditional media.
Founder and CEO Bradford Cross said in an interview with GigaOM that he hopes the app will transform the way people think of the mobile web, by making it easier than ever for them to browse and discover content.
Cross says the normal mobile experience is so irritating for users — who are usually pushed to either dysfunctional mobile versions of news sites or full-fledged web versions that are impossible to use on a handheld device — that many people simply don’t bother to try and consume much news on their iPhones. Prismatic’s app, which went live on Thursday morning in the iTunes store, has a built-in browser that strips out everything but the text and images from an article, the same way that services like Readability and Instapaper do, and this makes the reading experience substantially faster and more user-friendly, Cross says:
“Most of the time you won’t go into Safari on iOS and click on links, because you’ve been trained that that experience is so bad that you almost never do it — so you wind up not really using the internet. We wanted to make it so you could really explore on your phone and discover new things.”
Like the web version of the news-filtering and recommendation service, which came out of invitation-only beta in May, the Prismatic app allows users to connect using their Twitter or Facebook accounts, and will also import RSS feeds from Google Reader. All of this information is used to customize the content that is shown using Prismatic’s recommendation algorithms, and users can also create their own topic feeds and content lists from within the app. Because it is iPhone-based, the app also uses location as a way of suggesting topics that the user might be interested in, provided they agree to share that information.
Cross says the service has also tried to do some innovative things when it comes to the user interface and design of the app that make it more appealing to interact with the content inside the app, whether it’s to flag it as interesting or non-interesting, or to share it via Twitter and other social networks. So Prismatic came up with a pop-up interface that consists of three small buttons, and all the user has to do is slide their finger towards one to activate it — a system that is very similar to the fly-out menu options that mobile social network Path came up with for their iPhone app. Other menus within the app can be discovered by swiping the page right or left.
I’ve been using the Prismatic beta on my iPhone for some time now, and it definitely offers one of the fastest and cleanest news-browsing experiences I’ve had on a mobile device. News.me also had a good mobile news-discovery app that used your Twitter stream and follower graph as a source for its recommendation engine, but the service has since been merged with Digg, after its parent company Betaworks acquired the former news-sharing service earlier this year. Flipboard is probably the mobile news-based app I use the most, because it provides easy access to my Twitter lists and other content, and it also has a great user interface and is extremely fast.
Cross says that Prismatic had an even harder job than Flipboard when it comes to speed, because Flipboard (and other apps like Pulse) can do a lot of pre-fetching of content behind the scenes, since the content they allow users to interact with is relatively fixed. But in Prismatic, every tag on an article or blog post or other piece of content is a keyword that can be clicked on to reveal other content the service has found about the same topic, so the path a user will take is much more unpredictable. And speed is always a constant concern, he says:
“It’s got to be fast, so we had to bite the bullet and do a few things that took a couple of months to build. You know, with the phone you’re sitting in line, you’ve got three minutes, that makes your fuse for bull**** almost zero — you see a ‘loading’ image and if it crosses some time threshold, you immediately close the app and go somewhere else. That kind of ADD world is the reality for the phone.”
Most media companies take whatever website they have already developed and try to squish it into a mobile app or a mobile version of their website, but Prismatic has done the opposite — although it started with a website, Cross says it was it focused on the mobile experience from the beginning, and has actually changed the website version to make it more like the mobile app. That’s an approach that many traditional media players might want to emulate as mobile becomes an ever bigger part of the news-consumption business.