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Zite, the Vancouver app that is reshaping how people read news

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Worio never really took off, Johnson says. “All this technology was built. A few professors from UBC took sabbaticals and came and worked for us and some really core discoveries were made, but we never really developed the user base. We had some awesome technology but a product that didn’t really solve the user’s needs.”

Johnson, a search engine expert who was brought in to help the company at about this time, says they then took the Worio technology and turned it into a web-based magazine. But still no luck. “All the beta users loved it -- they loved the information, but not the interface. It didn’t look right, it wasn’t compelling, it didn’t make you want to come back to it,” Johnson recalls.

“We were wringing our hands and thinking, ‘Oh man, is this another failed product? What are we going to do?’ And then the iPad came out.”

And in August 2010, Johnson recalls, “I came up to Vancouver and sat with Ali and Mike in a very hot room in Yaletown, in 90 degree heat (32 degree Celsius), in a small room and we whiteboarded out what the iPad Zite would look like and six months later it came out. We had over 100,000 downloads in the first week.”

During those six months Klaas, who had a masters degree in computer science from UBC, taught himself design principles, in order to make the Zite iPad application stand out.

Mike Klaas taught himself graphic design to make Zite stand out.

Says Johnson, “One of the things that makes Zite great is not that we put all the technology we built over five years into Zite but that it was an exercise in restraint. We really tried to remove features that weren't necessary; to simplify the interface for this product that had really complicated technology in the back end.”

Johnson declines to say how many people regularly use Zite, but says there is a substantial fan base. Some of those fans were executives at CNN. “They came to us as fans of the application, wondering how they could work with us and they ended up buying us.” 

Johnson dismisses concerns that CNN might skew the news that Zite gives its users. 

“We're really different products in many senses. They don't have any desire to muck up what they've bought. They're insistent that we're run independently. They're content agnostic - if you prefer Fox News to CNN that's fine. They really bought a nascent business and because of that they want to make sure we have the freedom to build that business into something a bit more real.”

Mark Johnson: Zite will continue to deliver awesome results, every time.

As for how CNN will make money out of Zite, Johnson says there are a number of possible revenue streams. An obvious one is advertising. Zite is gathering detailed information on users’ likes and dislikes; information that would be very useful for potential advertisers. But Johnson says the advertising would have to be done right. “Our promise to users is that we deliver really high quality targeted content. When we do advertisements, we want to deliver really high quality targeted ads, so we're going to tread very carefully there.”

Zite has already started offering sponsored content. The first came courtesy of Vancouver-based Lululemon which sponsored a section of news items that the yoga clothing company felt were "challenging and inspiring." More recently Zite’s technology section was sponsored by Intel, with a few Intel items available for perusal among the usual news stories.

Looking towards the future, Johnson says that Zite may be offered on more platforms, such as Android phones and tablets. The iPad app will see “several interesting enhancements” in 2012, he says. But whatever Zite has in store, Johnson says:

“We'll never forget our technology roots. We have to make sure we continue to deliver you awesome results every time.”

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