Personalized Magazine Apps: Cutting the Web Down to Size

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Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The Web may be the most amazing newsstand the world has ever known, but it's far from perfect. For one thing, there's way too much of it: jillions of pieces of content on gazillions of sites clamor for your attention, from gems to appalling dreck. For another, even the good stuff often sits on pages jammed with distractions that don't encourage the kind of relaxed reading that dead-tree magazines have always made easy.

In short, the Web could use a little editing — which is exactly what a new category of free personalized-magazine applications aims to provide. Using cues such as recommendations from friends and your own reading habits, they pull in articles and other items that are likely to interest you. Then they declutter it all, presenting text and pictures in a streamlined manner more reminiscent of a print publication than a Web site. So far, most of this is happening on Apple's iPad, a gizmo that feels like it was born for these apps. But the idea is spreading to other platforms.

This trend began last July with the arrival of an exceptionally inventive iPad app named Flipboard. You authorize it to access your Facebook and/or Twitter accounts; it then scours your friends' feeds and bring back articles, photos, and other items that they've shared. It also lets you peruse general topics such as style), particular publications like All Things Digital, and photos from Flickr and Instagram. Everything's organized into addictively browsable sections with magazine-style layouts.

Flipboard is — I've never used this term to describe software before — drop-dead gorgeous. Company cofounder Evan Doll is a former Apple employee and it shows: the typography is handsome, photos are displayed in oversized splendor, and visual elements like page turns are animated with balletic precision. Reading Facebook on Flipboard is a far more ingratiating experience than reading Facebook on Facebook.

When Flipboard first appeared, it was one of a kind. Now it's merely the highest-profile contender in a burgeoning category of magazine-like applications. Another contender, Taptu, is announcing its arrival on the iPad today; the company gave me advance access to the app, which I've been using for the past few days.

Like Flipboard, Taptu lets you create sections — it calls them streams — that draw on a bevy of sources from all over the Web. But it allows you to customize any stream in a way that's not possible in Flipboard. If you like political blogs, for instance, you could start with Taptu's ready-made stream on that topic, and then add and delete sites as you please. Or you could build a list of your favorites from scratch.

What this first iPad version of Taptu lacks is Flipboard's visual sophistication. Even though it's working with the same amount of real estate, the list of streams feels cramped and confining, not airy and inviting. As you swipe through a stream, thumbnail images representing stories shuffle into position and plop into place one by one, an effect which left me feeling a little like Lucy Ricardo frantically trying to keep up with chocolates coming down the conveyor belt. (Fortunately, you can hide this "feature.")

Presentation problems are also an issue with Zite, another iPad personalized magazine based on interesting technology that's been under development for several years. Rather than basing its recommendations entirely on what other people have shared elsewhere or on streams you've specifically requested, Zite aims to learn about the topics and sources that matter to you. It gets started by examining your Facebook or Twitter accounts, then refines its understanding of your preferences by keeping track of the stories you read. The approach works quite well: it filled its pages with items I cared about and might not otherwise have encountered.

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