Material is a social magazine app powered by Twitter and/or Facebook usage. It’s the latest project from INQ, the U.K.-based, Hutchison Whampoa backed company that used to build social phones — way before everyone started embedding Facebook. And before Samsung became big enough to gobble up most of the Android OEM lunch.
INQ announced its pivot away from hardware to software at the start of this year, launching Material in beta on Android in February. The Android version of Material has had more than 50,000 downloads since then, according to INQ CEO and co-founder, Ken Johnstone. Today, INQ has extended Material to iOS, and updated the Android app to add an offline view feature and the ability to edit topics. The iOS version of the app has a slightly different design — cleaner and less dense, according to Johnstone. But is otherwise the same.
INQ’s “interest extraction engine,” which powers content creation for the social magazine by parsing the user’s Twitter and/or Facebook account, has also been tweaked since the Android beta launch to improve its ability to identify interests from social activity. As with most of these interest identifying algorithms, it apparently improves the more you use it, based on what you look at, and (in the case of Twitter) who you follow.
Material’s content is currently delivered as two daily editions: one in the morning, and a second edition that can be downloaded when it’s ready around 12 hours later. The idea being to offer up a best selection of topical, personalised content from around the web throughout the day. Sections within your magazine are generated based on your social activity, so will differ for each Material user (but can include categories like Books, Films, Technology, etc). The app does let you add/remove sections if you don’t like what it’s saying about what you like.
How does Material differ to the social magazine competition of Flipboard, Zite, Pulse et al? Not hugely, really, although Johnstone claims it offers a lower barrier to entry/set-up than rivals, being as it can be powered just by signing in with your Twitter (or Facebook) account. There are also no human curated sections in Material. Content is pulled in solely by looking at activity on your social networks and matching that to stories from across the web — therefore his argument is that the content it finds will be entirely unique to you.
“For somebody who has invested a lot of time in Twitter or Facebook anyway, this is about getting a return on that investment,” says Johnstone. “This product is a very easy product to use based on the work you’ve already put into your social networks. It’s heavily customised, it’s not some guy curating content for a design section, for you, which is the same as everyone else’s design section. It’s completely unique. So in that respect it offers a much more personal experience.”
Twitter on its own is likely to give better results than Facebook on its own, according to Johnstone, assuming you use Twitter enough to generate enough of an interest graph (or don’t, in my case, use it too much for work purposes — skewing results). But using both accounts will apparently offer the best results. “Some people will get better results than others, that’s something we’re very conscious of,” he adds. “But it should be pretty good for everybody — and hopefully awesome for some.”
In my experience of testing it out for a few days ahead of launch, it has the same issues as all these social magazines: a small portion of content is interesting; the majority is relatively unexciting, being only mildly relevant to some general interests; and another portion of the stuff makes you go WTF?! (In my case, I am apparently following someone on Twitter who really likes Miley Cyrus). Bottom line: the interests of the people you follow are not always informative of your interests.
Unsurprisingly, the overall feeling you get from flicking through an edition is not a cohesive, editorially unified whole, but an algorithmically generated bunch of mostly random stories with (at best) a few loose, overlapping themes. And a lot of redundant duplication. It’s computer-generated content wearing a magazine’s clothes. But that’s a charge you can level at any solely algorithmically powered social magazine.
I’d be hard pressed to rank Material against its social magazines rivals. It’s clearly not entirely optimised for my relatively specialist use of Twitter (and large number of followees) so it seems unfair to judge it based on what it delivers to me. It was also still pretty buggy — although Johnstone stressed the iOS app was in the final development test phase, and there were a number of known issues they were aiming to fix for launch.
However one rather key problem I noticed (and which wasn’t on a list of known issues he flagged up ahead of launch) was stories being mis-categorised — especially in the ‘Comedy’ section it generated. But then computers being confused by humour is not exactly a new story.
What about business model? Ultimately, INQ’s end-game here is to acquire enough users — and learn enough about them — to have the data to build an advertising business out of Material, likely based on injecting relevant adverts into each user’s magazine, much like Facebook has done with ads in the Newsfeed on its mobile apps. However Material monetisation is a long way off at this point. For now, INQ’s social magazine experiment is being funded by its long-time partner Hutchison so the focus is squarely on pulling in the users — and pulling in stuff the users are interested in.
Some screenshots of the Material iOS app follow below.