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Zite's 'Smart' Personalized iPad Magazine Lags on Launch

With SXSW less than a week away, everyone's racing to push out new apps and updates -- and inexplicably road tripping on a StartupBus -- to beat the rush in Austin. Today's unavoidable app is Zite, a personalized magazine that's being touted as a 'Flipboard-killer' because of its learning capabilities. Unlike iPad publications like The Daily or Sir Richard Branson's 'Project,' Zite mixes the links from your friends' Twitter accounts and your Google Reader subscriptions with the voting and customization ideas from services like Pandora.

Apps like Reeder, Flipboard and Pulse require that you bring in your own subscriptions in the form of Tweets, RSS feeds or Facebook friends. Zite claims that its recommendation system, developed by the University of British Columbia's Laboratory for Computational Intelligence, is even smarter. Zite starts with your basic preferences and then customizes to your interests (long-form journalism, celebrity news, cats) by analyzing how you read and rate articles. Let's dig in to see how it fares.

Zite


Fortunately, setup is easy enough. Give Zite access to your Google Reader account or Twitter username; or bypass Twitter and Google Reader altogether, and simply select from Zite's pre-selected 'Magazine Sections,' which features listings on everything from 'World News' and 'Science' to 'Mac' and 'Travel Blogs.' These sections are your primary organizing tool, and you'll find them on the right side of the app's home screen. Interestingly, CEO Ali Davar told All Things D that Facebook's data is "too heterogeneous to reliably recommend articles."

We'll need to use the app for a few days to get a better feel for how good the recommendation engine is, but we expect many will be turned off in just a few minutes by the app's crushing speed issues. Though possibly due to testing on the morning of the launch, Zite was all but unusable, burdened by 15-minute login screen load time and excruciatingly slow article and section refreshes (all on fast Wi-Fi).

The app's suburban jewelry-dealer aesthetic is harmless enough, but the design issues are more than just cosmetic. To simply share an article in portrait mode, you're forced to tap 'web' (wait), then the 'share' button (wait), and finally you're only given a few sharing options. Flipboard, Pulse, Reeder and even Twitter offer one-tap sharing, Instapaper, and ReaditLater options. Zite takes the Instapaper approach and visually tweaks articles by stripping out ads, site layouts and formatting for easier reading. But again, it's a slow process.

There's clearly a need for tools like Flipboard and Zite for helping to organize and visually highlight what's important in our ever-expanding digital streams. Applying the Pandora voting model to other media is a novel approach, but Zite won't be replacing any of our go-to news-reading apps until it gets its crippling speed issues sorted out.

Tags: apps, features, ipad, news, news apps, NewsApps, zite, zite.com

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