Over the last 20 years, three new technologies have come together to reshape the way information enters our lives. First, of course, there was the Web, starting around 1993. Then came social networking, starting around 2003. And finally—hugely amplifying the effects of the first two—came broadband-capable smartphones and tablets, starting in 2007.
Any one of these changes would have been enough to dislodge consumers’ old media consumption habits (namely, listening to the radio, watching television, going to the movies, buying records or CDs, and reading newspapers and magazines) and the media business’s old revenue models (advertising, subscriptions, and physical-media sales). But because these three forces have now converged, they are having a tsunami-like impact. They’re wiping the media landscape clean and giving entrepreneurs opportunities to rebuild from the foundations up. It feels like everything is up for grabs.
A case in point: the ongoing, feverishly competitive project to create the winning app in what might be called the “social content discovery and news reader” category. The big question here: What’s the best way to get news on a tablet? It was only three years ago that Palo Alto, CA-based Flipboard wowed iPad owners with its answer: an app that aggregates and displays all the articles being shared by the user’s friends on social networks.
Flipboard founder Mike McCue has said that the app was the result of a thought experiment. He and co-founder Evan Doll tried to imagine “if the Web was washed away in a hurricane and we needed to build a new one from scratch.” The startup’s replacement married the aesthetic of a print magazine with a certain kind of personalization. The app shows the media world as filtered through the preferences and enthusiasms of the user’s friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, Tumblr, and the like.
It was a real innovation, and today Flipboard is arguably the leader among news-reader apps. The company says it has 100 million users across its iOS, Android, Windows 8, and Blackberry apps—and of all the startups conceived for the tablet era, it is one of the best-funded, having raised $111 million in venture capital.
But after three years, Flipboard hasn’t yet offered any big new ideas to follow on its first act. Meanwhile, it’s got a pack of eager rivals close on its heels. We’ve covered many of them here: companies like Circa, Pocket, Prismatic, Reverb, Trapit, Zite, and even LinkedIn (which bought Flipboard competitor Pulse in April) and Google (which offers a news-reader app called Currents, and recently bought a news-aggregation startup of its own, called Wavii). None of these organizations would agree that Flipboard is the last word in social news aggregators, or that the media upheaval is anywhere close to being over.
But what will be the key elements in the next big content-discovery app? Are content consumers mainly interested in finding out what their friends are posting and tweeting about, or do they want news that closely matches their personal interests? Are people just looking for stuff to read, or are they looking for places to discuss the stories they find with their friends? Are social-content-discovery apps good for finding more than just news?
Prismatic, which released a drastically overhauled version of its news app this week, has an interesting, idiosyncratic set of opinions on those questions. According to co-founder and CEO Bradford Cross, Prismatic isn’t a news reader like Flipboard or Zite, even though it’s all about showing users personalized content. It isn’t a search engine like Google, though it’s got powerful Web search algorithms and a huge database of recently published content under the hood. It’s really closer to being a new kind of social network—but then again, it would be wrong to compare it to Facebook.
“My whole thesis is that we don’t yet have the categories for the next generation of consumer apps,” Cross says. “We only know about news readers and social networks, so everything gets lumped into one or the other. It’s an interesting tension, which means it’s something we can innovate around.”
The San Francisco startup first came onto the scene in the summer of 2012 with Web and iOS apps that analyzed users’ Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader feeds to form a picture of their interests, then gathered matching news stories from the Web. Cross, who previously founded a Y Combinator-backed startup called Flightcaster, created the app with Aria Haghighi, a Berkeley computer-science PhD with a background in machine learning and natural language processing.
“Our initial phase was about the technology behind identifying interests and classifying stories as being about certain topics and allowing people to follow those topics,” Cross says. “That phase lasted a couple of years, and we were very research-oriented. We had a bunch of machine-learning PhDs and one visual designer.”
The app won sufficient buzz among the digerati that Prismatic was able to attract $15 million in Series A funding in late 2012 from Russian investor Yuri Milner and Accel partner Jim Breyer. That allowed the company to move to an office on San Francisco’s South Park, expand to 20 people, and add new design features and social interactivity to the app. “We have really changed the DNA of the company dramatically,” Cross says. “There are as many designers as PhDs, so it’s a very balanced product now.”
Before the release of the new app, which hit Apple’s iTunes App Store on Dec. 19, Prismatic was very much a news reader, albeit one that seemed especially good at rooting out recent Web content related to the user’s interests. Now it’s morphed into what the company calls an “interest network.” The first time you fire up the app, you’re asked to connect it up to your Facebook and Twitter feeds, so it can tell what kind of people you’re following, and to pick at least 10 topic areas you like (I started off with areas like photography, hiking, museums, dogs, gadgets, robots, running, startups, San Francisco, and iPad apps). You’re also given the opportunity to follow other people who already use Prismatic.
There’s a reason why Prismatic wants you to follow both people and topics. It’s that Cross and Haghighi don’t feel you should be boxed in by the interests of the people in your existing networks, the way you would be if you got all your news from Facebook and Twitter (or from their corresponding sections on Flipboard). By trusting to Prismatic’s search algorithms, plus your existing social network, you can, in theory, get the best recent articles on all your interests, without having to follow all the right experts on social media. “For the 20 topics you may follow in Prismatic, you would have to follow 2,000 people on Twitter to get the same breadth,” Cross asserts.
To create a sense of how everything in Prismatic is connected, each post in your feed is prefaced by a line explaining why it’s there. For example, in my feed, an article on the “Top 15 Most Beautiful and Useful iPhone and iPad Apps of 2013” appeared because Ryan Sarver, a venture capitalist whom I follow on Twitter, had given it a thumbs-up within Prismatic’s iPhone Apps topic. An article called “Stop Coddling Your Dog—He’s 99.9% Wolf” appeared because it was trending upward in the Dogs topic. An article on Keith Rabois of Khosla Ventures was there because Cross, whom I follow on Prismatic, had commented on it.
Which brings us to the new social features on Prismatic. Cross and Haghighi want Prismatic to grow into a community, where people show up for the conversation as much as the content. The actual stories on Prismatic appear with big type and big pictures (which makes reading easy), and at the bottom of each story, there’s a button that lets you start a discussion. Every comment can also be broadcast as a tweet or a Facebook update, drawing others back into the app, and if people comment later, you’ll be notified. When you comment on something, you’re also creating a post about the article on your personal Prismatic page, which others can then browse. It’s a little like reblogging something in Tumblr. “Human beings naturally want to interact and share stuff, it’s just not always easy to do,” Cross says. “We are trying to make it easy.”
Where is all this going—and why is an “interest network” inherently more exciting than a 2010-vintage news reader? To Cross, it’s because what Prismatic is really facilitating is discovery. And there’s nothing stopping the company from helping people to discover stuff other than news articles. “First we shared news. Then we added photos. Next will be videos, apps, games, and products,” he says. “Basically, we will go through all these different content types, and do discovery for all of them. Some of them are transactable, and for the ones that are transactable, that is our revenue.”
To understand what Cross means by “transactable,” just think of a song on iTunes or a book on Amazon; if you come across it on Prismatic and then buy it, the company will get a cut. And affiliate commissions are just the beginning—one can imagine the app evolving into a giant social catalog of digital and physical objects. “If we are fortunate enough to be able to build a company of 100 people or 1,000 people, we think there is a huge opportunity here for creating totally different products from where we started,” Cross enthuses.
Of course, as with the first iteration of any new product, there’s a lot of work left to do on the current version of Prismatic. In my testing, I noticed several annoying problems. One is that the app is sporadic about showing which publication originally published each article, or who wrote it. (This lack of attributions and bylines is particularly troublesome to a journalist like me; if you come across one of my own articles in Prismatic, I darn well want you know where it came from.) Another issue is that stories seem to load very slowly—you get the headline and the first couple of paragraphs right away, but there’s a tiresome “buffering” wait if you want the rest. Cross says the startup is already working to fix these problems in future releases.
Unlike other makers of news readers, Cross never speaks of Prismatic as a Flipboard killer. “I would say Flipboard has kind of won already in this tablet-reader category,” he says. “But the bigger message is that that whole category is not very interesting. The problem we are trying to solve is not the same problem as Flipboard’s. It’s more of a second-generation problem—that social networks haven’t done a good job of covering all of our interests.” If Prismatic can get a few tens of millions of people to sign on to its new vision, it may have a shot at becoming the app that yet another generation of developers is dismissing three years from now.