By Harry McCracken | Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 3:55 pm
Zensify, makers of a social-network aggregator app for the iPhone, released a free new app today called ZenNews. It uses a similar interface for a whole new purpose: to help you learn what’s going on in the world as reported by a bunch of high-profile news sources.
The app pulls together stories from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, USA Today, TweetMeme, BBC News, CNN, and Al Jazeera, and displays them in tag clouds that attempt to indicate the relative importance of the news items they link to, both in a general view and individual ones for each news source:
You can also browse in a simpler, more straightforward list view, with summaries:
Once you choose a story, ZenNews uses an embedded version of the iPhone’s Safari browser to let you read it in the originating site. You can also share stories via Twitter and e-mail.
I like the idea of an iPhone app that aggregates important global news sources and lets you browse through them in different ways. And ZenNews is fast and fun to use. But I found that it’s most striking feature–the tag cloud-style view–didn’t do a great job of helping me figure out what was in the news, and that ZenNews’s pool of stories failed to keep up with the day’s events in a super-timely fashion.
Of course, today isn’t an ordinary news day–in the U.S., at least, the story of the boy who (turned out not to have) gone up in his parents’ experimental balloon is everywhere, and is still a developing story. There are links to it in ZenNews, but it doesn’t dominate, and you might miss it altogether. As I write this, for instance, it’s the lead item on USA Today (and every other U.S. general-interest news site). But ZenNews’s page for USA Today doesn’t include any keywords obviously related to the story:
And if you do go to the keyword “balloon” on ZenNews’s general page and press it to drill down, you get a bunch of keywords that don’t do a particularly logical job of divvying up the story. It’s not clear why you’d want to drill down further via “runaway” vs. “colorado” vs. “child” vs. “homemade”–they all lead to stories on exactly the same topic. (The “dutch” and “china” links lead to stories on a different balloon accident.)
ZenNews updates itself automatically with new stories, but doesn’t seem to do so in a particularly instantaneous manner: I’m still not seeing any of the articles reporting that balloon boy turned out not to be balloon boy after all.
Ultimately, I like ZenNews’s more straightforward list view more than the cloud, and I want to try it on a less eventful day to see if it does a better job of keeping up with the world. If you give it a try, let us know what you think…