News Discovery Startup Prismatic Is Ready For The Masses, Thanks To Its New iPhone App

Prismatic co-founder and CEO Bradford Cross has taken a fairly measured approach to launching the company’s news discovery service. The team has only been opening the service gradually, and Cross tells me he’s basically treating the website as a place to test his ideas and develop the technology.

Today, however, Prismatic is launching on the iPhone, and judging from both Cross’ comments and my own experience playing with the app, this looks like the first time the service is ready to reach a large consumer audience.

One big indicator of how things have changed is the on-boarding process the first time you open the app. Until a few months ago, you had to wait 24 hours after first signing up before you could actually access your account. (During that time, Prismatic was analyzing your Twitter account and building out its recommendations.) With the iPhone app, however, there’s a clear attempt to make things friendlier for new users. Not only can you start reading as soon as you’ve set up an account (that’s true on the website now, too), but you also get walked through a quick overview of the Prismatic concept, and as you explore the app, helpful hints continue to pop up.

Not that people should need too much guidance. On the iPhone, Prismatic offers a touchscreen interface whose features are fairly intuitive. For example, when you’re reading a story, you just tap on the screen and hold down for a second or two in order to bring up the different feedback options — you can mark a story as “interesting!” or “don’t like!” (which helps Prismatic improve its recommendations), and you can also share it on social networks. You swipe right to return to your feed and swipe left to bring up the app menu.

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All of the articles are laid out in Prismatic’s content browser, which makes most content feel a lot cleaner and more readable on the iPhone screen. Cross says that Prismatic tries to improve the readability while also preserving all of the publisher’s content on a page, such as links pointing to related articles. (One sign that the browser is pretty good — when I tap on a link in an article and get taken the regular web, I sometimes feel a little annoyed at the cluttered interface.)

Cross has previously said that his goal with Prismatic is to build a true social discovery service, something that really helps you find new, relevant content based on what’s being shared by your friends and especially on your interests, rather than just offering a nice layout for the articles and updates that you’d already see in your Twitter feed. There’s an additional layer to those recommendations in the iPhone app, because it also recommends interests and publications to follow based on your location. In my case, those recommendations included some obvious choices (“San Francisco” and “SFgate“) and some that were a little more surprising (“dubstep”?). Cross points out that this should be could be helpful, for example, when it comes to finding things to do on the weekend.

As for the business model, there are no ads in Prismatic, and Cross sounds pretty uninterested in trying to make money that way. Instead, he suggests that the real answer is in commerce. He won’t say exactly what form that commerce will take, but he points out that Prismatic’s one real marketing effort thus far has involved sending customized boxes of goodies to its most active early users, as a way of thanking them and also demonstrating, “We really do understand people’s interests.” The boxes were free for users, but when Prismatic asked whether they would be willing to pay for something similar in the future, many of those users said yes.

You can download the Prismatic iPhone app here.