News.me, a new social reading experience for the iPad developed by technology incubator Betaworks and The New York Times, launched on the App Store a few minutes ago after much anticipation and speculation on whether or not the service could take on well-established “social magazines” like Flipboard and Zite. There’s no doubt the iPad has created a new market for this kind of applications: rather than presenting a series of links pulled from the top Google News or Techmeme, apps like Flipboard aim at showcasing content being shared by your friends on Twitter and Facebook. But while Flipboard simply collects all content shared in your timelines without applying any sort of filter for relevance and popularity, News.me wants to change the rules of tablet-based social reading experiences by offering a “smart” system that, thanks to data provided by popular URL shortener bit.ly, can filter out the most relevant items appearing in your Twitter timeline – and in someone else’s as well.
That’s the key point of News.me, the feature that will need to be tested in the long term to see if the experiment has a chance to survive in this crowded digital and social newsstand. Not only does News.me enable you to see what your friends are sharing (through tweets), it also lets you see what they are reading. And from this standpoint, logging into Twitter within News.me gives the app a whole new meaning when it comes to “Twitter integration.” It’s a huge bet for Betaworks and The New York Times: can the bit.ly-backed algorithm provide an efficient way to distribute personalized news to iPad users? More importantly, is it enough to convince people to pay $0.99 a week, or $34.99 a year?
Upon launching News.me for the first time, you’ll notice the app will ask you to log in with your Twitter account, and subscribe to one of the plans based on Apple’s new subscription system. Fortunately, you can try the app for free for one week, but after that you’ll be forced to subscribe if you want to keep using News.me. Certainly, $0.99 a week sounds like a good plan for auto-generated personalized news: but how do you explain to average users – like my mother – that they’ll have to pay for an aggregator of news you can find with a bit manual effort anyway in free apps like Flipboard? That’s my question, and the reason why I’m curious to see how News.me will hold up in the next weeks. Again, no one really knows now if the algorithm put in place by Betaworks will be worth it. In spite of the complex technology underlying the filtered Twitter streams offered by the app, using News.me is very, very simple: once logged in, you’ll be asked if you want to “subscribe” to feeds from people you follow, and that are already using News.me. On a second screen, News.me will showcase the so-called “featured users” – people like Kevin Rose that the app thinks you should be interested in.
Once you’re done choosing users to follow, the app will launch your timeline, and you’ll be able to see the details of the interface and the navigation schemes implemented by the developers. Along the top, there’s a scrollable bar featuring the avatars of the users you’ve subscribed to; this bar isn’t always visible, as scrolling will slide the translucent top toolbar (containing the app’s logo, read later queue, settings and refresh button) above the Users bar. As you scroll, an additional button will appear in the black toolbar allowing you to quickly “go back to the top” and choose another user’s timeline. One thing I absolutely love about News.me after a few minutes of testing: animations. The app’s really minimal UI-wise (nothing more than white backgrounds and black text), but a lot of thought went into the animations that convey a feeling of “moving” between timelines. You can swipe on a headline (or tap on it), to see a beautiful page turning animation that’s completely different from Flipboard’s one; the app’s splash screen has got its own animated logos and graphics that are a pleasure to see; when you tap the refresh button, a user’s avatar on top will start rotating to tell you that News.me is looking for new relevant content.
I still have to understand how exactly the app fetches relevant news and “interesting stories” using bit.ly data and my personal interests, but the system seems to be dependent on a on/off switch in the Settings that you can use to “filter tweets for you.” In the Settings, you can also enable an option that automatically sends your favorite tweets to the in-app’s read later queue (different from the “send to Instapaper” action) and activate the “streamlined” reading view that will default every article to an Instapaper-like “just text and images” view that strips away all unnecessary clutter. Alternatively, you can open articles in the browser.
Like I said it’s difficult now to say whether News.me’s smart filtering system really works or not, but I’ve noticed a couple of interesting factors that might increase the quality of the social aggregator. For instance, you can swipe right on a story in your timeline to “mute” it and tell the app to hide it forever, or check out a “people who read this story also read” section at the bottom of popular articles. This section aggregates stories from the same source that are linked to the one you’re reading, and should provide a meaningful way to discover news that might interest you. Another feature I love is the importance News.me gave to attribution: you can tap on a writer’s name to open a popover menu that allows you see his bio and follow him on Twitter. Unlike Flipboard, News.me got attribution absolutely right.
Overall, it’s too early to judge an app like News.me – but I can say it’s got several functionalities that can make it survive in the long term, even against subscriptions and social magazines like Flipboard, Zite and Broadfeed. The real test for News.me begins in a week, when people will have to decide to pay for a news aggregator on the iPad.