Reverb Taps Its Word Graph to Reinvent News Reader Apps on the iPad

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a human at Reverb. Today, for example, there’s an amusing collection on the selfie, which was recently designated by Oxford Dictionaries as the word of the year.

Once you click through to an article in Reverb, it shows up in a simplified, magazine-style format for easy reading. (In this mode, tapping on any word in an article will bring up its dictionary page in Wordnik, which is a nice added feature.) But if you want to see the original article on its native website, there’s also a button for that.

At the end of every piece, there’s a list of related articles and concepts, also drawn from Reverb for Publishers. Unlike many “related articles” widgets, this one makes good recommendations, which means it would be easy to spend an hour just following a chain of articles in Reverb without ever resurfacing to the word wall.

To complete the feature tour: In addition to the word walls, there’s a map view that shows you stories related to your current location. Here at Xconomy San Francisco, for example, the map view is showing articles related to Dropbox and Twitter (which both have offices nearby) and Anchor Brewing Company, home of every San Franciscan’s favorite hometown beer, Anchor Steam.

You can star any article to mark it as a favorite, then browse all your favorites from your account page. You can share any article with your friends via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, text message, or AirDrop (the instant-sharing service linking nearby iOS devices). Finally, if there’s a topic in your word wall that you don’t like, you can get rid of it with an extended tap, the same way you’d delete an app from your iOS device, and Reverb will never bother about that topic again.

Being brand new, the Reverb app has a few rough edges. In article view, the same piece can show up multiple times. When you call up the actual text, many articles suffer from formatting oddities (a common problem with news reader apps). You can’t yet share articles to common read-later or cloud storage services like Pocket, Instapaper, or Evernote.

But it’s easy to see where the startup is trying to go with the app, which combines many of the best features of other news readers and adds quite a few of Reverb’s own invention—especially its deep knowledge of current concepts in the news.

Reverb map view

Reverb map view

McKean says that early in the development process, the company had a bit of trouble deciding how it was going to describe the app. In our interview she used terms and phrases like “reader,” “portal,” “explorer,” “discovery tool,” “GPS for words,” “Pandora for text,” and even “taleidoscope.” (A taleidoscope is a viewing tube with mirrors and lenses like a kaleidoscope, but without the colorful objects that roll around; it’s the kind of word that would only occur to a former dictionary editor.)

“We fit in the space between all of those things,” says Katie Cushmore, Reverb’s vice president of marketing. In Apple’s iTunes App Store, however, Reverb shows up in the News category (where it’s listed today as one of the “Best New Apps”), which means the burden is on the startup to show how its reader differs from other aggregators like Readability, Pocket, Flipboard, Zite, and LinkedIn’s Pulse.

The app is free to download and is also, at the moment, advertising-free. McKean says the company will spend a while working on gaining users before it starts to add money-making features. “It’s about proving out that people enjoy this,” she says.

The obvious revenue model, she says, would be inserting content promoted by advertisers. “We are really good at presenting the right content to the right people, so a sponsored content model makes sense,” McKean says. “If I’m spending all day browsing my fashion wall and Tide wants to add an article about the best soap for washing blue jeans, that is not going to make any one throw down the app in disgust.”

In a cartoon showing the evolution of Reverb’s products, the new tablet app “would be the one standing most upright,” McKean says. “But the important thing is that they all have a shared back end, and they are all just interfaces on the same data.” Who knew that a giant online dictionary could have so many alternative definitions?

Here’s Reverb’s 90-second video demo of the app.


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