The dream of a personalized magazine tuned just for you keeps showing itself on the iPad. Today’s edition comes from AOL Editions, which is finally coming out after much fine-tuning and a silly video. (Disclosure: TechCrunch is also owned by AOL). Editions assembles a digital magazine for you once a day from a variety of online news sources and blogs—The Atlantic, Businessweek, CNNMoney, Forbes, TechCrunch, Cnet, Business Insider, Wired. It is trying to stake a position somewhere between The Daily’s all-original (and expensive) reporting and Flipboard‘s endless pages of prettified RSS feeds and social streams.
AOL Editions is designed to be completed in one sitting. It pulls in 30 to 50 stories across different sections like Top News, Technology, Business, Entertainment, Sports, Local News, and Travel. You pick the sections you want, enter your zipcode, and it does the rest. You can further train the app each time you read an article by tapping on sources and topics you want to follow or hide. The app pulls out a few main topic tags associated with each story for which you can effectively give a thumbs up or down by tapping on a check mark or an X. The next editions will show more stories from those sources or on those topics. You also can add blogs or news sources via a search box on each section start page as well (but only from sources without paywalls, no New York Times articles appear, for instance).
The design and navigation are pleasing enough once you wait for a minute or so for your edition to be pulled together on the fly each morning. Readers are greeted by a big cover picture with an old-style magazine mailing label that states their name, town, and the temperature. Sections start off with large photos and headline typeface. As you flip through the articles, the layouts vary with headlines and excerpts in different column configurations. When you tap on a story, an in-app browser will open up and take you to the original webpage. If the source is owned by AOL (such as TechCrunch or Patch for local news), you get this nice effect that allows you to swipe through all the text within the app, but only half the page is moving because the photo and headline stay still.
In addition to flipping through the edition sequentially, you can also pull up sections to jump to them directly or a full list of articles. Articles can be bookmarked or shared via email, Twitter or Facebook.
It’s a solid effort put out by the mobile team under David Temkin and Sol Lipman from AOL’s West Coast office (which is part of Brad Garlinghouse‘s group). But I have one main issue with it and that is the timeliness of the news in its pages. For my realtime tastes, they can be a little bit stale.
In an attempt to deliver something that is complete and completable, AOL Editions pulls together your personalized stories at the same designated time every day. If that is 8:00 AM, any news that happens after that will have to wait until your next edition “arrives” the next morning (although there is a way to override that and assemble the next edition immediately). If I open AOL Editions and read what I perceive as yesterday’s or even this morning’s news compared to what I can get online, I’ll just stick to the Web.
I, admittedly, am a news junkie whose livelihood depends on being up-to-the-minute on every tech headline, but I don’t think it’s just me. People spot check news apps and sites against one another. News apps need to be as current as the Web. Those are just table stakes.
While there is a certain satisfaction to being able to complete an Edition (or at least skim every headline and excerpt), it wouldn’t be too hard to add a few updates throughout the day to each section. The Edition could be reassembled every time I open the app, not some predetermined time of day. The algorithm that selects what stories to present is based on clusters of similar articles across top news sources. There is no social stream component like you have in Flipboard pulling out the images and text behind Tweeted or shared links. The benefit of this is that Editions is less noisy than Flipboard, but it is also missing out on the timeliness of the social news feed. Again, there is a different way to do this. Instead of showing every shared story in my Twitter and Facebook streams, Editions could show only the ones which hit a certain threshold of likes and reteweets.
As the news-finding algorithm improves, so will the overall experience.