A few years ago, I went on a trip to Morocco with my family. As is normally the case when we travel, we went to a local market in search of good deals on locally made goods. We walk into the market, and it’s suddenly a cacophony of sounds, languages, items being thrown in the air, and merchants pulling us into their stores. All of the stores sold the same thing, but every merchant claimed “my store is the one that you want!” It’s hit-or-miss on actual quality.
That’s what it feels like when I go to the App Store. There are apps that are fun to use, but once you leave the Top 100 chart, you enter the territory of the unknown. So you download apps, try them out, and delete them. But once in awhile, you find an app that really stands out and which immediately claims a place on your Home Screen. Prismatic’s new iPhone app, launching today, is one such app.
Prismatic, which is my personal favorite news aggregation-meets-news reader-meets-social feed, has had a solidly built website for months now. However, while the company has made it clear to me in the past that a mobile strategy is key to the company’s future success, it also wanted to take its time. According to founder and CEO Bradford Cross, the company built and threw away five different versions of the mobile app before it came to the current revision of the design.
The first thing you notice when you open the application is that it is fast. Now, it may not seem like a big feat to make an app almost entirely based on text and articles work quickly, but it is. As Cross told me, the company optimized every single part of the app to be as quick as possible. The optimization is reminiscent of the old days of MIT’s Tech Square in the 1940s and 50s, when hackers would do everything within in their power to cut even just one command from a program.
The optimizations are clear all over the place, if you know where to look. For example, the individual rows themselves are specially designed not to take up too much memory and slow the application down. Then there’s the custom Web browser, which is effectively an in-house version of Readability, and which loads articles directly from Web pages and then strips out all of the scripts which slow down the loading.
The optimizations are so impressive, in fact, that even Apple has taken notice. According to Cross, the company has received clear communication from the company that engineers have begun to take notice of Prismatic’s optimizations. As Cross told me, it is vindicating to receive praise from Apple on the design of a product, because after all, it is Apple.
Aside from the optimizations for speed, the second big feature that Prismatic is bringing onboard is localization. When the user opens up the app for the first time, Prismatic begins looking for where the user is currently located. This additional layer of data is incredibly important for the company, according to Cross.
In fact, as Cross tells it, localization may well be key to the future of Prismatic. Since pushes into the local news market have failed so miserably, according to Cross, the company thinks that a different approach is needed. This approach involves supplying users with the news they normally want — for me, technology, politics, and over-the-top rants — but then sprinkle in localized news based upon the user’s location.
Again, this feature sounds much simpler than the implementation shows it is. The application takes the location from the phone, and then sends it to Prismatic’s servers. Prismatic then reverse engineers the location and ties it to publications which are located near the user (in New York City? NY Post. In San Francisco? San Francisco Chronicle). Not only does it do this, it does it fast.
Now, this doesn’t mean that when you show up in Seattle that all of the sudden you’re going to be bombarded with Seattle-centric news. What it does mean though, is that Prismatic has another layer of data to base recommendations off of. Tied in with the existing layers that the company is building on all Twitter users, it begins to look like the icing on the cake.
As Cross told me, the app was designed to be fast, usable, and easy. “We spent two months honing performance,” says Cross, all so that when the user is standing in line waiting for a coffee, they can quickly check the news. And I can personally attest to the fact that it works, so well that it has won a spot on my home screen.