Geek Speak: Ali Davar, CEO of Zite
The Zite iPad app, a personalized news aggregator that “learns what you like”, hit Apple’s iTunes Store on March 8, and quickly rocketed up the free apps chart, garnering 120,000 downloads in its first week. On March 30, a group of media heavyweights, including the Associated Press and the Washington Post, sent Zite a letter charging that the app is “plainly unlawful” and asking that the company stop infringing their copyrights. Zite says it’s complying with publishers’ demands.
Davar’s company has a team of eight people and has its roots at the University of British Columbia. The Zite iPad app is its second product. The company’s first product was Worio, a semantic-search site that launched in 2008.
The Georgia Straight reached Davar by phone at the Zite office in Yaletown.
Why did you make Zite?
We think that the discovery problem is a really big problem. Every day, the best of what the web has to offer us, whether it be news or whatever else, gets by us. That’s a terrible, terrible thing. In an information society, to have all this great information passing you by every day—and you just settle on whatever it is on the front page of whatever major paper is out there or you just give up and you just go to one site every day or one blog every day—that’s really not the way it should be. You should be able to get the best of what’s out there for you. I think that’s a huge problem, and we love working on that problem.
How does Zite’s personalization improve as you use it?
It learns from what you click on and bypass. It learns from how much time you spend on an item. It learns what your tastes and interests are, like the nuances of what you find interesting. So, it doesn’t just learn about topics that you’re interested in, but learns that you like editorials or analysis, that you like left-wing blogs, not just political blogs. It picks up stuff like that.
The big publishers that sent you the cease-and-desist letter argue your app is damaging their business. What’s your response to that claim?
Basically, we’re just going to comply. But our long-term strategy is to really get the user the best experience possible and at the same time create a win-win for publishers. What that means is creating this reading mode and still having a way for publishers to benefit by it. That’s what we’re moving towards. We want to engage publishers in that discussion. So, that’s our long-term strategy. Our long-term strategy is to kind of find the place where users win and therefore publishers win as well.
How exactly would you strike that middle ground?
There’s all sorts of possibilities. We could have ad-embedding in reading mode. We could imagine an up-sell model if they’re a subscription publisher. There’s all sorts of possibilities. We only launched a month ago, so we want to have a discussion with publishers around the issue of what is the way forward. But for now our argument is let’s give the user the best experience possible. Let’s not have them revert to this web-view mode, because it’s not the optimal experience.
The important thing here is, while this is our position, it’s really not a big part of Zite. What’s special about Zite is the personalization. It’s the articles it recommends; it’s not our presentation layer. The aesthetics is quite secondary to that. But, for us, we want to push the bounds of what is the best experience possible. That means not only how good the information is, but also is it a clean, high-performance format. The performance of it is much better when you render it in reading mode.
How does this app relate to the work your company did on Worio, the semantic discovery engine?
It’s interesting. In a nonlinear way, we’ve used all the same technologies. Some of the personalization stuff is new. But what Worio was is we had a lot of deep technology trapped under the hood of not a great product. It’s not that it’s a bad product. It’s that it’s a feature of another product. It’s not really a product unto itself.
We kind of developed Worio thinking one of the search players is going to come along and recognize this is a useful technology to serve alongside regular keyword search and they’ll buy the technology. But the problem is then you’re just a feature waiting to be bought; you’re not a product itself. So, we had made kind of a classic mistake in entrepreneurship. We tried to create a product out of a feature, and it’s just a feature. That’s all it was. It was a feature of a search engine.
So, what Zite is—it’s a free-standing product itself. It’s not just part of something else. So, we had to repurpose the same technology, which is a classic move for technology companies. One of the wonderful things about technology companies, when you build such deep technology, is when your product is not quite right you reposition yourself and you do another product.
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.