By Harry McCracken | Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 12:56 am
I’m not sure what to call the category of news app–mostly, but not exclusively, seen on the iPad–that includes Flipboard, Float, News 360, Pulse News, Taptu, Zite, and other contenders. All I know is that it’s booming–and that AOL’s Editions, which debuted this week, is the newest example. (Also the first one I can think of from a big company rather than a spunky startup.)
Like Flipboard and its rivals, Editions pulls together news stories from all over, and then stitches them together into a personalized magazine-like digital publication. It takes the “magazine-like” part very seriously: Each edition of Editions has a cover (complete with mailing label) and sections that apply a halftone-style to photos to make them look like printed material.
Most of the other products in this category aim to provide never-ending feasts of news and other information, but Editions is intentionally finite. It’s designed to be delivered to your iPad once a day, at a time you specify–AOL envisions it being a morning read–and has a fixed number of pages. (The first edition I sampled had 39 of them.) You’re not going to read all the articles in an edition of Editions, but you might at least scan by all of them, just as you could with a daily paper. It’s possible to finish it, in a way that’s unusual in the world of online news.
Every app of this sort has to deal with the thorny issue of determining just how completely it’s going to integrate the articles it aggregates. If it runs them in their entirety, reformatted and stripped of advertising, it runs the risk of getting the sort of nasty letter from major media company that Zite got shortly after its release. Editions treads gingerly here, perhaps because it’s the creation of a major media company itself. It include complete stories from sister AOL properties such as Engadget and Moviefone, but mostly runs articles in Web view, so they retain everything from the original versions, including all the advertising. It makes for a less readable app than some of them competition, but should placate content owners.
How does Editions find stuff you might like? It scans your social networks and automatically adds news sources and topics it comes across. You can also add sources on your own, but from a pre-defined list that isn’t exhaustive–Technologizer, for instance, isn’t on it. (At least we’re in good company: neither is The New York Times.) Editions also tags all stories by topic, and you can tell it that you want more (or fewer) articles with any specific tag. It all seemed to work pretty well for me.
If Flipboard’s amazingly slick and inventive user interface deserves an A+, Editions merits a B or B+, which is better than many similar apps. It’s fun to use and avoids the cramped feeling of programs such as Taptu and Pulse.
I have noticed some new-product quirks during my time with the app. Despite having my Zip Code, which placed me here in Northern California, it populated its news section on day one with stuff from the Phoenix area. (On day two, I got stories from my region.) And in a few cases, it grabbed boilerplate text from Web sites rather than article text, or linked to pages that didn’t include the stories they were supposed to contain.
Overall, though, I think the big question about editions involves its once-a-day updates and willfully limited amount of content. I confess to preferring timelines and, um, endlessness myself: when I open a news app, I’d like it to give me the latest stories, and plenty of them. But if there’s a critical mass of iPad owners who want something in this product category that’s more laid back, Editions has a decent shot at success.