While News360 is brand new to Android devices (arriving first on Honeycomb-based tablets), the company is a pioneer of sorts in terms of publishing news aggregating (or personalizing) apps on tablet devices.
In this edition of Meet The Makers, News360’s Chief Business Development Officer Roman Karachinsky discusses the 20-person venture capital-backed company’s intentionally late arrival to Android. While he appreciates the platform for predictable launches, he laments what he calls “less mature” development environment that currently exists on Android (relative to iOS).
Karachinsky also shares his thoughts on why he launched on Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry tablets first, the “ludicrous amount of metadata” News360 is gathering, and why Apple’s dominance (to him) in the mobile space is the biggest thing that keeps him up at night.
Appolicious: News360 today is available to Android devices via Honeycomb. Although tablets are a rather small part of the Android ecosystem, describe how this app is configured for larger screens and what Android tab owners should expect.
Roman Karachinksy: News360 has been geared towards the larger tablet screens from its inception, and the first Android release is honeycomb-only for this reason (a version for 2.x smartphones will be coming in next couple of months). We've seen tremendous feedback from our iPad application, and the Honeycomb functionality is in line with our iOS offerings, but in a new design to fit around Google's "holographic" UI, and feel at home. We also take advantage of Android's unique capabilities to, for example, allow users to create a home-screen widget that shows them the exact stories they've configured the News360 app to bring them.
APPO: Compare the experience of developing an app for Android to creating titles for iOS and other platforms.
RK: In addition to Android, News360 has been released on the iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone 7 and Blackberry Playbook, so our team has a lot of experience developing for different platforms. We try to make the app unique on every device and offer the best possible user experience, so we come up with new design for each app, and always develop native code rather than using cross-platform solutions. Every platform presents its own unique challenges. Compared to iOS, the Android development community has a far smaller knowledge base when it comes to developing very complex interface interactions and compelling animation, so for a lot of our features, we had to invent ways to create solutions that, on iOS, have been common knowledge. The SDK and development environment for Android is also a lot less mature than iOS, which made it especially difficult to start developing the app without having an actual Honeycomb device.
APPO: How about preparing for an app launch? There must be advantages to having a clearer idea as to when an app will become available to consumers.
RK: The fact that the distribution process for Android is so much easier than iOS, definitely makes testing and publishing apps a much less stressful process. For us it's less about the initial launch, which you can still control more-or-less in the Apple App Store (just add two weeks before the launch date for the approval process to finish), but the fact that you can't release updates as soon as they are ready makes finding a bug in the already-available app (or one that has been sitting in the app store approval queue for 10 days and is about to get approved) a hair-pulling experience. With Android, you get critical updates out to users as soon as you can develop them.
APPO: What was the motivation for launching apps for Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry devices (Playbook) before Android?
RK: For both WP7 and Playbook, we wanted to create apps in time for the platform launch. For Honeycomb, that was a much more difficult proposition, since the SDK was not available until the very last minute, so that was not really an option. Since launching simultaneously with the devices was not an option, we decided to take the time to polish the Honeycomb app and make it as feature-rich as our iPad offering.
APPO: After the initial buzz and publicity of the launch, what do you do to drive downloads and maintain marketing momentum over time?
RK: We try to think long-term about our growth and appeal. A successful and well-publicized launch is a key part of any growth strategy, but developing a great relationship with the users, making sure that they are continuously getting value out of our products, and updating the apps to keep them excited about new features and opportunities is even more important. It's not about how many people download your app at launch, but more about how many of those become users-for-life, and spread the word about how News360 helps them stay informed every day.
APPO: Talk about your company. How many employees do you have? How are you funded? What are your primary revenue streams?
RK: The company is about a year old and is 20 people strong, with most of the team being developers and linguists. We're funded through venture capital. Right now we are focused on user growth, and there is almost no revenue to speak of, and we are slowly testing our monetization models that will come into play in the next few years.
APPO: As you know, there are a lot of news aggregators available on all of these platforms. How does News360 differentiate from the pack?
RK: Our main differentiater right now is that we do not try to use RSS or social media to deliver content to you. News360 works as a traditional news aggregator, clustering articles from more than 1,500 sources and then ranking everything based on dozens of metrics to determine which stories are the most important right now. Doing this accurately takes a lot of know-how and time-tested algorithms (Google News still can't do this very well after 10 years), which is why you don't really see a lot of companies trying to tackle this problem.
The ultimate goal for News360 is to create a news personalization service that will actually learn your interests accurately and work well. But to do this, we need to really understand what the content that we are delivering is all about, which is where the bulk of effort lies. We've created a semantic analysis platform that gathers a ludicrous amount of metadata about every article we collect, every person or company that is mentioned in the news, every story that develops across the media. This allows us to much better understand what you have read (and are reading) and why.
APPO: As a mobile media creator, what are the three biggest things that keep you up at night?
RK: 1. Apple dominance - Don't get me wrong - we love Apple with all of our hearts, but the fact that they have so much control over our destiny is a little disconcerting. They are able to tell us how we can or cannot make money, what kind of content is or is not acceptable, and there is no ground for us to argue - anything goes wrong and we are gone from the App Store. We have not had any problems so far, thankfully, but the danger is always there.
2. User growth - we watch the number of our active users like hawks, 24/7, to make sure we are growing a loyal and dedicated userbase
3. Content distribution models - the online and mobile news markets have been trying to figure out how a news organization adapt to new use cases and make money, and so far, all attempts have been unsuccessful. We think we can be instrumental in solving this, but the scale of the problem is gargantuan.