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Russians, Zombies, and Artificial Intelligence: News360 is the New Cadillac of Personalized News Readers

By Michael Carney , written on July 10, 2012

From The News Desk

Information overload on the Web is alive and well.

Despite the endless number of would-be solutions, all of which repackage so called personalized news feeds inside a different flavor of pretty wrapper, there is still a sense that important news is being missed and staying fully informed remains a stressful, inefficient task.

News360 launched a completely rebuilt iPad app today, with loads of machine learning and AI baked in, to (hopefully) end this issue once and for all. The app has turned the personalization paradigm on its head and delivered it to the user in a gorgeous but entirely unique user interface.

To call the app an update would be an understatement of epic proportions. News360 threw out the baby, the bathwater, and the whole damn bathroom on this one. Its new app borrows almost nothing from its predecessor or largely from its competitors either, other than the fact that it displays news.

“We are the anti-social news reader,” says founder and CEO Roman Karachinsky. “We don’t just organize your Facebook and Twitter feeds in a pretty frame, nor do we serve you articles just because your friends or followers liked them. We analyze your actions within the social [and interest] graph to understand your personality, and make predictions about the types of content you’d enjoy.”

Users begin in typical fashion by selecting among various high-level topics that they’re interested in. A few dozen are listed, but up to a million can be created using simple search bar. Technology, check. Politics, food, fashion, check. Zombies -- believe it or not, it’s one of the standard choices -- double check. This irreverent yet prominently placed topic is the first hint that this is going to be an entirely unique experience.

With the choices set, users are greeted with a “home feed” comprised of all of these topics intermixed in equal measure and curated from a current list of 30,000 content sources. “One of our primary goals is to de-compartmentalize news media,” says Karachinsky. “People tend to fall into these compartments and never get out.” Karachinsky, for example, says he’s been as guilty as anyone of thoroughly consuming technology and startup news, but not finding the time to stay informed on politics as much as he’d like.

Although the initial feed may consist of equal parts business and culture, depending on a user’s topic choices, it learns and evolves over time based on behavior. If a user tends to prefer humorous rather than serious political articles, News360 can recognize this and then source more of the preferred type of content. The same adaptation occurs should the use prefer technology content in the morning, but cooking content in the evening, or news on their phone (analogous updates to iOS and Android smartphone versions coming soon) but entertainment on their tablet.

It’s a big promise to say that a humble mobile app can get better over time at delivering the content that a user wants -- even when they don’t know they want it -- but this is what News360 is striving for. The brains behind the company suggest they’ve at least got a fighting chance. Founders Karachinsky and Nina Grigorieva gained years of enterprise semantic analysis and reputation tracking experience, before realizing that the consumer space had as much need for these solutions as did their business and government clients.

The pair assembled a team of “classically trained linguists, mathematicians, data scientists and geeks” who have worked behind the scenes for more than a year to build the core News360 engine. The system analyzes elements such as the topic, tone, importance, likely impact, and author of hundreds of thousands of pieces of content across the Web each day and then delivers that content which best matches the personal preferences of each individual user. Automagically. Like a friggin content butler. I shall name him Henry.

Henry, being the good assistant that he his, will surprise the user from time to time by mixing in content that’s atypical based on existing consumption patterns, but still thought to be interesting and worthwhile based on knowledge of the user. Karachinsky calls this “breaking the bubble” and says that it will happen with up to 25 percent of all content depending on each user’s engagement.

“We’re very, very conscious about filtering too much,” says the CEO. “We learn from Twitter and Facebook feeds, but we feel that relying on them is not a very healthy way to gather information.”

The UI within News360 has gotten a fresh start as well. When I first played with it I was reminded of the delightful and refreshing feeling I got when first exploring WebOS after years of iOS and Android sameness. The experience begins with a familiar infinite tile based layout, based on images and headlines. Underlying each, however, is News360’s “cube” interface. For each news item the cube spins end over end like the wheel of a slot machine, revealing four sides which display image and title, first paragraph, all outlets covering the news item, and sharing and rating tools.

Therein lays another hidden gem. For each piece of content surfaced, News360 chooses the “best” source but also includes all other outlets covering the same topic. These alternate sources are available in the main news feed cubes and across the top of the reader pane once a story is opened. Additionally, while in each story, the app aggregates all images from all sources on the subject and provides them in a scrollable panel across the top of the screen. The News360 name comes from the desire to show each news story from every conceivable angle.

What could have been an overwhelming, disorganized experience, is instead intuitive and executed to near perfection. News360 is on the surface both the most beautiful and the most effortlessly comprehensive news reader experience I have ever encountered. If it can deliver as promised by learning my tastes and delivering just what I’m looking for with a dash of surprise, consider me a full fledged convert. I’d expect quite a few people to agree.

The above-mentioned sharing and rating tools include Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and email. Also present are “Save” for offline reading and a StumbleUpon-like “Interesting” thumbs up to request more similar content in the future (in Zuckerbergian fashion, there is no thumbs down available).

The final wrinkle in the News360 experience is the acknowledgement that consuming even curated news can be a never ending and potentially overwhelming experience. The app’s home feed is basically infinite, which Karachinsky calls “both a good thing and a bad thing.” To unburden the user, News360 offers a series of three gold stars at various levels of daily content consumption. “We sort of treat every day as an angry birds kind of level,” the CEO says.

A single star means you can can step away and feel good that you know enough now to not miss anything important. This threshold is individual and benchmarked not against the amount of breaking news on a given day but against how much content a user regularly consumes. Typically, it appears when a user has browsed “a good number of headlines and read a few stories,” Karachinsky generalized.

Two stars are given when a user thoroughly reads the available news related to their personal interests. Three stars is more of an accomplishment, indicating that the reader has “consumed quite a lot” in the CEO’s words.

It’s possible that one day the News360 score, or something similar, could emerge as an type of “Klout score” for informedness. The company hopes they will use this indicator to tune their news reading activity, compare to friends and colleagues, and even gauge expertise.

For example, a person who consumes two to three stars worth of political content would presumably be a good resource to explain or debate current campaign policies. This type of score sharing is a hypothetical at this stage, but at least represents an intriguing thought exercise for where apps like News360 could evolve.

There is no monetization currently in place within the news app. The company outwardly promises to never share or sell identifiable user data externally, but could presumably target ads based on the information. This type of strategy is not the focus, however, as the company points out that news consumption-based ad targeting is notoriously bad.

The real value according to Karachinsky comes from the ability to connect people to content that is relevant and valuable but otherwise wouldn’t have been discovered. Down the road, he envisions using the technology to help high quality niche and or local content creators compete with big publishers to reach audience. “We want to focus on long tail of content” he says. “There are too many ‘astronaut bloggers,’ that have limited audience but produce great content focused on a narrow area of interest about which they are truly an expert.”

Launched in 2010, with the current version appearing in App stores since early last fall, News360 has received 1.5 million downloads of its app across all platforms including iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, Windows 8, and Blackberry Playbook (also available on desktop and mobile web). The vast majority of these have predictably occurred on iOS and Android. The updated functionality and experience introduced today in the new iPad app will be coming to all platforms “hopefully by end of summer,” according to the company.

Nearly three quarters of News360 users are in America, with the rest located in English language markets around the world (the app is English only at this stage, with additional language support contemplated in the future).

The company, which is based in Moscow, with 27 of its 30 employees in the Russian capital (and the remaining three in Silicon Valley), raised undisclosed Series A round in Russia around the time of its launch. It recently received a $1.5 million grant from the country’s Skolkovo Innovation Centre.

Looking at the crowded space of digital news curation, there are two obvious conclusions to draw. First, based on shear number of would-be solutions there’s no arguing demand. Flipboard, Pulse, Wavii, and even Google Reader have combined tens of millions of users. Secondly, and more critically, none have solved the issue of delivering “the right content” from across the web in an elegant but comprehensive and powerful interface.

Arguably, News360 is the closest of any to date to this Holy Grail. It remains to be seen whether the new kid on the block can deliver on its great promise of ever improving personalization and delight. If it comes anywhere close, Karachinsky and his team of Russians are going to be on a first name basis with the titans of Silicon Valley and old and new media publications alike.