A look at tablet technology with Mark Johnson, CEO of Zite

| Friday, November 4th, 2011

There’s no denying it. Tablet technology is growing faster than anyone could have predicted. Just two years ago, the field was seen as stagnant with a tiny user base. Then, everything changed when Apple stepped in and did what they do best. Led by Steve Jobs, they entered the unpopular field and made it the hottest kid in town. Now, the industry made up by the iPad, Android, WebOS, and Blackberry will be taking up the space under the Christmas trees this year.

Regardless if tablets are attractive, they wouldn’t be sexy if it weren’t for apps. They’re the icons that populate your homescreen/dashboard and they make your experience enjoyable. Whether that’s getting an article done on the way home, playing Angry Birds while waiting for the doctor, or using the camera to connect with loved ones, apps make the world go ’round. However, there are some crappy ones out there and there are those that are so good, CNN would want to buy them.

More on that later.

Today we’re surrounded by a ton of news. We sort through the various sources with Reeder, Pulse, and other RSS readers. But let’s be honest with ourselves: Do you feel happy when the badge on Reeder, a popular RSS app, reads 972 unread articles? I sure don’t. In fact, I catch myself selecting “Mark all as read” more often than not. What does this tell us? News is great, but only when it’s not overwhelming. An app that solves such a problem would definitely catch the eye of CNN.

Enter Worio

In 2005, a group of guys aiming to change Internet searches came together and founded Worio (Web of Research Iteration One). The goal? Give users the ultimate social web search engine. Today, it still remains as a must-have Chrome plugin that lets you get results from your friends, Twitter, Facebook and the most talked about blogs. However, the vision didn’t end there. This same group wanted to redefine search on the newest platform — tablets.

Enter Zite

Launched on the iPad on March 9, 2011, Zite is the personalized magazine we’ve all longed for. It searches the web for the articles and stories that would be of most interest to you. Think of it as the Leprechaun who picks out the cereal from your box of Lucky Charms and only leaves the marshmallows. In other words, it leaves behind only what you want to read.

Mark Johnson, Zite CEO

To get a better look at what Zite is and hopes to be, how it’s utilizing the tablet space, and what it sees for both the platform and it’s own future, I sat down with Mark Johnson, Zite’s CEO.

According to Johnson, “Christmas season this year is going to look really big in terms of tablets, but I think Christmas season next year is going to be insane. Like, everybody is going to have a tablet under the tree.”

Mark, a Standford alumni, and a guy deeply in touch with tools for searching the web, leads Zite as it continues to grow and expand. According to him, it seems that a lot of economical issues are going to encourage people to buy tablets. Textbooks, regular books, and reading in general, cost less on the thin device that you can carry and use anywhere compared to their more traditional formats, according to Johnson.

[quote]We’re dealing with a very new area here. You know, the idea of content discovery is an old one, but we’ve never really had the technology to do it before. For example, the social graph didn’t really exist four years ago, but now everybody is a member of the social graph and those kinds of things can really deliver great results.[/quote]

For starters, Zite looks at what’s interesting on the web. They look at millions of stories a day to find out who’s sharing them, how they’re sharing them, if they’re bookmarking them, commenting, etc., to get a general idea of what’s important. Then, it decides what to deliver to you, the reader. This is done through content analysis; what the story is about, what style it was written in, its length, and so on. All of these attributes are compared to the kind of content you like to read. By comparing the stories it gets back to the categories you selected as interesting, Zite populates your screen with great content. Then, in each article, there are options on the right to like/dislike, and ask for more on certain topics within the article. The best part? It doesn’t end there. Rather, Zite learns your preferences over time. In fact, Mark says, give it a week, and Zite will know you.

[quote]Here at Zite, we strive to utilize iOS to the maximum. We won’t stop innovating until we reach the limits of Apple’s SDK. Even then, we’ll do more. We’ll do better.[/quote]

There’s a whole lot more that goes into Zite and the way it works. However, let’s focus on this: What makes it a piece of technology that the industry can look towards for insight into the future? This answer began to unravel when CNN, the news media giant, bought the startup in August for around $20 million.

[quote]I feel that Zite is kind of like… where Google was against alternates sites. Where, you knew that Google is way better than anything else that you were trying, but it still failed at times. I think I see the same thing with Zite where we do a really darn good job. Better than anyone else, but I want to do even better.[/quote]

Zite made the transition from just an app to a company with a solid product when they realized that users want an awesome tablet experience. Good enough is just not good enough. Why? Because, frankly, we haven’t come to the point where a tablet is necessary, per se. Therefore, with every iteration of your app, you must ask yourself, will this bring something to the user that you can’t get somewhere else? If you go blank on that question, try again. Zite surely answered this, and will continue to answer this in the future. With plans to expand the product on to multiple platforms, it’s definitely paving the way for other products.

Mark and the rest of his team understand the tablet industry. Yes, it’s just a baby. But just like it’s predecessor, the smartphone, it’s more than meets the eye… and the fingertip.

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