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Q&A: Zite President Ali Davar Responds to Early Feedback on His ‘Intelligent’ iPad Magazine

An iPad magazine called Zite has recently joined the ranks of Netflix and Mashable Follow in allowing users to curate their own content from multiple sources.   Following its launch in mid-March, Zite was the number one free news app on iTunes, with 100,000 downloads in the first five days and 160,000 by the end of the month.   Early adopters responded well to the app, requesting – and receiving –  additional features like Instapaper for offline reading and Delicious for bookmarking articles.  But publishers had a few concerns.  We asked Zite president Ali Devar to explain the app and to tell us what’s next for the company.  Read his responses after the jump:

How does Zite work?

Zite personalizes by analyzing what you read.  It looks at: what you click on and don’t;  how much time you spend on a page; what you thumb up and down and other feedback; topics, sources and authors you like, and many other factors.  Using this analysis Zite can tell whether you prefer shorter newsy articles or longer form reading, topic skews (e.g., are you a gadget geek or a Web geek?), and other characteristics that make your tastes and interests unique.

What’s Zite’s story?  Tell us about yourself and the rest of your team.

The team came together five-plus years ago at the University of British Columbia.  I was in the last year of law school at the time and had an idea for how to use tagging on the web to improve web searching.  I brought together a group of researchers and professors and we got some government grants from Canada’s National Research Council and Precarn, a Canadian organization specializing in intelligent systems development.  We raised Angel financing and started working our first product Worio, a browser plug-in that provided web discovery alongside regular search engines such as Google.  The product never really took hold because it was more of a feature rather than a product per se and there was not really a vibrant market for selling technology.  So we were in the position that we built all this great technology but didn’t really have a showcase for it.  We therefore started to think about how we could create a freestanding product that would provide personalized web discovery (that was about a year and a half ago).  We rebranded this second product and our company as “Zite” – a play on the German word “zeitgeist”.  When the iPad came along we realized this would be the perfect showcase for our first product and here we are.

Publishers can track readership online in ways that were impossible with print.  Zite takes it further with personalized reading.  What have you learned about your readers since you launched?

We are still learning.  But one of the interesting things is how when content is a surprise–sources you wouldn’t otherwise see, articles you wouldn’t otherwise read—people get reinvigorated with the value of all that’s out there that they are missing.  It is this feeling, “wow, look at all this interesting stuff out there”, that really appeals to users.  Zite is just an enabler of that experience.  The content is out there just waiting to be discovered.  Our mission is just to get the right piece in front of the right reader.

In a blog post dated March 31st, you responded to cease and desist letters from major media companies that were concerned that Zite’s display altered the layout of their content, removed their ads and violated their copyrights.  Have you worked anything out with them?  How can publishers benefit from being part of Zite?

The conversations are ongoing but it is now a discussion with business development instead of legal–which we much prefer.  We are sympathetic to their issues and they have become very interested about Zite’s potential to get people excited about their content.   This is not a zero-sum thing–publishers win, we win, because Zite is only as good as the content out there.

What is your business model?

It’s not entirely settled at this point.  For now, the app is free and there is no advertising, but we will start experimenting with various approaches to monetization soon.  But our chief goal for now is just creating a product people love, rather than economics per se.

What are your plans for the future?

Zite everywhere.  Today it’s just an iPad app.  We want to make it available on all platforms/devices and on the web, so you can check your Zite on your phone at the bus stop or on your desktop at work.  The tablet is definitely our forefoot, but we want to go much further.

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