is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Here is a quick list I made of some of the many mobile news apps that have entered the market over the past few years: Prismatic, Circa, Pulse, News 360, Summly, and Zite. These are all serious, well-funded and/or well-staffed entrepreneurial attempts at building the next great news brands. You can probably name at least a few others.
To some degree or another, they all propose to define a new kind of news reading experience that lies at the intersection of mobile access and customizable headlines. Some of them are pretty good at it, too. But none of them have truly come to own this category, and similarly none of them have become indispensable mobile brands the way that say Instagram has.
This situation puzzles me, because reading the news is one of the core use cases on a mobile phone — just about everyone does it. It surprises me that we’re almost six years into the iPhone-fueled smartphone era, and we don’t yet have a commonly agreed upon winner among news apps. Not just a clear leader in downloads, installs and active users, but an outright brand leader, an approximate equivalent to what CNN was in the first decades of cable news.
There is a distinction, of course, between producing original news, like CNN does, and aggregating or repackaging it, like almost all of these apps do. And maybe the fact that these brands have already come up against the limits of their popularity suggests that aggregation will always be inferior to original news.
I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long run that turns out to be the case; research suggests that legacy news brands enjoy an advantage in mobile (at least for now).
Still, I highly doubt that the combination of mobile access and customized headlines has already played itself out fully. While I take nothing away from what these apps have done so far, it strikes me that we are still just learning what mobile news consumption means, and how it’s very different from traditional or even desktop media models. As our understanding matures, new apps and brands will enter the market with radically different interaction models.
If you also have a little bit of faith that technology will continue its heretofore unceasing forward march, then it becomes quite reasonable to expect that we are due for huge innovations in relevance and automated customization sometime in the next decade, which will benefit this category of software immensely. That is, solutions to the challenge of creating a news experience tailored just for your interests (explicit and implicit) are bound to get more and more sophisticated — and accurate. The company that is the first to combine such technology with a truly advanced understanding of mobile news consumption will become the next great news brand.+