Fluent Mobile’s New iPhone App—An Elegant, Multi-Source News Reader

6/30/09Follow @wroush

Ah, the beauties and the pitfalls of the new mobile-software ecosystem. With ready-made distribution platforms like Apple’s iTunes App Store, it’s possible for a couple of entrepreneurs to launch a company on the cheap around a single application. But if you go that route, you’re entirely at the mercy of Apple, where the App Store administrators are famously arbitrary, unpredictable, and close-mouthed about which apps get approved for the store, and when they’ll actually go live.

Fluent Mobile, a Boston startup that emerged from stealth mode today, has been sweating the App Store kingmaker process all month. Its new news-reader application for the iPhone, called Fluent News, was originally expected to show up in the App Store on June 16. Then it was June 17. Then there was long period of limbo. Fluent’s public-relations folks were forced to send journalists such as myself—who’d received an embargoed press release and a preview version of the app in early June—a string of e-mail updates about the latest delays.

Now the suspense is finally over, and iPhone and iPod Touch users can finally download the free app. Fluent News is basically a mobile multi-source newspaper—like a gussied-up RSS reader. The interface is reminiscent of dedicated iPhone apps published by individual news organizations such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but the app combines stories from a range of major news feeds, all pre-optimized for viewing on mobile devices. So far I’ve seen stories on Fluent News from CNN, the New York Times, Bloomberg, the BBC, the Washington Post, Fox News, Reuters, ABC News, and USA Today.

When you start up Fluent, you see the Top News page, which shows the day’s hottest stories, as judged by Fluent’s content relevancy algorithms. You can also explore stories in specialized sections, including U.S. news, business, world news, entertainment, sports, technology, politics, science, health, lifestyle, and opinion. There’s also a “Most Popular” page that shows you the stories that other Fluent News users are reading most avidly. (See the video demo on the next page. If you don’t have an iPhone, you can still access all of this content from any mobile browser by going to www.fluentnews.com.)

Fluent News story view Fluent News -- section view Fluent News -- share screen

Fluent itself is free to consumers.Fluent Mobile makes money on the clickable interstitial ads that occasionally appear mixed into story lists (they’re prominently set apart inside black bars). Many of the ads relate to other iPhone apps, and are provided by AdMob, a San Mateo, CA-based mobile advertising network.

Fluent Mobile CEO Micah Adler, a former professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says the company developed Fluent News in order to lend a consistent format to mobile and Web-based content from diverse sources. “Browsing the mobile Web can still be an extremely frustrating experience,” Adler said in a statement today. “Fluent Mobile is dedicated to narrowing the experience gap between mobile and desktop Web browsing by optimizing the search, organization and delivery of dynamic mobile content.”

Fluent News aggregates far less content than the mobile version of Google News, but packages it far more attractively and makes it much easier to navigate. And rather than sending you off to the original source of every story, as Google News does, Fluent News shows you the story inside the app’s embedded Web browser, where it’s able to impose a consistently readable typeface. (This doesn’t mean Fluent is stealing clicks away from the original sources—it’s simply taking advantage of same public news feeds that these organizations provide to everyone, and putting them in one place.)

Like Google News, Fluent doesn’t bother to show you every single story on a hot topic, like,say, Twitter as a medium for political organizing in Iran, to pick one that was hot this week. Rather, Fluent’s algorithms highlight one example of each major news story, and let you drill down to see related stories from other organizations if you want to.

The app has some other nifty features that you might expect from a sophisticated news reader for a desktop Web browser, but that I haven’t seen before on a mobile device. For example, stories you’ve already read are grayed out in article lists. And if you program the app with your Facebook or Twitter account info, you can alert your friends or followers about interesting stories, directly from the app. You can also share articles via e-mail.

Adler says the company has plans to release other apps that make the mobile Web more usable. Dan Chak, Fluent’s vice president of engineering, is helping him build those apps. Chak is known among Web developers as the author of a 2008 O’Reilly Media volume called Enterprise Rails. Adler and Chak also created CourseAdvisor, a website that helps budding students find the right degree and career training programs at colleges and vocational schools. CourseAdvisor raised about $12 million in venture funding before being acquired by the Washington Post in 2007.

But whether Fluent’s future applications are also for the iPhone—meaning the company will once again have to brave the App Store approval process—Adler isn’t saying.

Fluent News Demo

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Peter

    America only. Lame.