Farewell to Zite

By Tech Powered Dad | December 9, 2015

Tonight, I Shed a Tear for the Passing of My Most Used App

Zite app broken

Today, Flipboard followed through on its stated timeline and threw the kill switch on Zite. While not the most well-known of the news aggregators, Zite was certainly one of the most beloved by those who used it (see Garner, Jennifer).

Sadly for its fans, Flipboard acquired Zite in the Spring of 2014. “The sooner Zite goes away, the better,” said Zite CEO Mark Johnson.  That quote has taunted me since the moment I read it. I suppose it was easy for Johnson to feel that way, since he was interested in a successful merger and the dollars that go along with it.  For me, it felt like a doctor diagnosing a terminal illness for a patient and then telling them they hope they die quickly. I’ve been on death watch ever since.

While Mark Johnson was enjoying his vacation (see the above article), I started making a habit of going to Google News every few weeks, searching for updates on Zite’s status. After a year, you start to lie to yourself, saying, “Maybe the doctor made a mistake. Maybe the cancer isn’t spreading. Maybe Zite will pull through.” But the tell-tale sign came a few months ago when Zite announced users could migrate their data to Flipboard.

Migrate my data to Flipboard? I’m not sure Flipboard even understands the users of the company they acquired. Why not ask Mac users to accept the Windows user experience? Why not have the Cardinals acquire the Cubs and ask the fans to migrate from Wrigley Field to Bush Stadium? The Flipboard user experience is so different from the Zite experience, and from numerous Tweets, blog comments, forum posts, and friends I’ve personally evangelized to Zite, most Zite users categorically reject Flipboard.

What made Zite so great? I’ve been a Zite user for three years now, and it has gotten more use on my phone than any other app in that time. You just picked some topics you were interested in, and Zite started building a news feed about those stories. By giving those stories a thumbs up or down, Zite learned what to show you, both in terms of types of stories and sources.

If you never used Zite, what I just described may sound like a half dozen other apps on the market. The problem for those of us that got addicted to Zite is that the execution of those other apps always seems flawed by comparison. Zite absolutely nailed several critical components, and despite looking for alternatives, I’ve never seen another app get them all right.

  • Recommendation engine—The backbone of Zite’s intelligence was its amazing ability to learn from what you read. Sometimes it was uncanny how it seemed to know what kinds of specific articles I’d be interested in that wouldn’t have shown up other places. I also loved being able to create any topic I wanted, not just those from the canned list. Zite adapted amazingly well to new topics I created like: “data visualizations,” “Central Illinois,” “Illini Sports”
  • News sources—Many news aggregators seem to only recycle the same news sources from major news organizations or those registered with Google News. Zite found a way to include the quality “little guy,” the blogger, and at the right frequency compared to the big guy—not too much, not too little. These fresh voices made such a difference in what I found in Zite. I now listen to what has become one of my favorite weekly podcasts from an independent filmmaker as a result of his blog post on Zite. I read a blog post from an author whose writing encouraged me so much that I persuaded her to make a visit halfway across the country to do a speaking engagement in my hometown. I have not had these kinds of experiences with other news apps.
  • User Interface—The Zite UI was simple, clean, and efficient. All you had to do was flick scroll through story after wonderful story. Going to a specific news topic I had created was just a tap away. You could quickly scroll through story after story. I’d love to include some screen shots of this, but when Flipboard kills an app, they really kill it. I really should have taken more pictures of our time together to preserve the memories.

I’m not exaggerating to say Zite opened my eyes to new people and new ways of seeing the world. I’ve tried using the Zite to Flipboard migration process, but I’ve found using Flipboard to be a miserable experience. One to two stories on a page and then… FLIP. Another scan of the single story on the next page… FLIP AGAIN. Sure, the animation is pretty, but I could have scanned a dozen stories in Zite and settled on the two I want to read in the same time it takes to go through that flipping animation a couple of times, which starts off pretty, but rapidly becomes frustrating.  They’ve missed the boat so badly on the UI, I just couldn’t stick with it, this from a person that often opened Zite 10 times a day. I’ve felt lost when I unlock my phone today and don’t know where to go now. But…

I did perform the migration a couple of weeks ago. My data is still there. I believe the heart of Zite is still faintly beating somewhere. I’ll probably go on a new watch now, opening Flipboard for a few seconds every few weeks, looking for signs of life. I’m not sure if I’m a hopeless optimist or just hopeless of finding a new app of Zite’s quality again after a year and a half of looking. I’d like to believe that one day Flipboard will improve their user experience, that I’ll open the app and find what I’m looking for. Something that looks more like Zite.

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