New app Timeline brings explainer journalism to mobile

It’s the era of explainer journalism and we have a new entrant to the list. Mobile app Timeline seeks to give you historical, on-the-go context about breaking news, current events, and random stuff. It’s like Wikipedia meets Circa meets Vox meets The History Channel, and it’s addictive.

Timeline launched a few weeks ago. In the way that Circa built a new, on-the-go format for a news story with its bite-sized cards feature, Timeline is creating a fresh form of explainer journalism, one that’s mobile first.

Here’s how it works. The home feed of Timeline shows you a list of potential stories to scroll through. The topics range from fairly evergreen, like “The surprisingly tumultuous history of socks,” to newsy, like “California’s vaccination problem,” to pop culture-y, like “Super Bowl ads reveal U.S. psyche.” They leave a curiosity gap, one that’s not too clickbaity, prompting readers to click for more.

Screenshots from the homescreen of the Timeline app, where readers can scroll through the day's stories

Screenshots from the home screen of the Timeline app, where readers can scroll through the day’s stories

On its individual story pages, Timeline presents a quick “in brief” summary of the news or the topic at hand. Then readers can choose to skim the content in the overview timeline format or click to read each section more in depth. Videos, imagery, and pull quotes lend a stylish, magazine-like air to the design and break up the chunks of text. Depending on the topic, the timeline can extend months, decades or even hundreds of years into history.

For now, Timeline has hired professional writers to write the posts, so the historical context is easier to understand and more enlightening than the jumbled, jargon-filled text of a Wikipedia post.

For example, the timeline on the history of Super Bowl ads considered the larger so-what of why these ads matter to America: “When viewed with a discerning eye, these commercials reveal the American zeitgeist at the time: What is valued, what is feared and what is accepted as common knowledge.”

Timeline taps into what makes Wikipedia addictive — this swirling vortex of information about random things you never thought about before — and makes it mobile-friendly. Instead of perusing Instagram while you wait in line, perhaps you’ll be tempted to tap on Timeline.

Screenshots from an individual story page in Timeline. Left: The brief topic summary; Middle: The timeline view; Right: The in-depth view

Screenshots from an individual story page in Timeline. Left: The brief topic summary; Middle: The timeline view; Right: The in-depth view

Is Timeline taking on Circa or Wikipedia?

At first glance, the app’s nearest rival might seem to be mobile news app Circa, but that’s not really the case. Circa focuses on breaking news. People encountering the news for the first time can peruse previous updates on the issue, but the timeline isn’t historical in scope. “Ultimately, I don’t consider us a news organization, I consider us an information organization,” CEO Tamer Hassanein told me. “I would compare us more to Wikipedia than the New York Times or Quartz.”

The Timeline app frequently tackles evergreen or feature topics and doesn’t aim to cover breaking news unless its historical back story is compelling to one of the curators.

Of course, that limits the amount of information the app can offer. Hassanein hopes to eventually scale up to a user-generated content system, but that will come with a host of fact-checking and accountability dilemmas. The app is deliberately avoiding controversial topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict until it solidifies its editorial strategy.

newspaper fact check factcheck

Does anyone want explainer journalism on the go?

Sites like Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and the New York Times’ The Upshot were all created that under the premise that in the noisy digital journalism age, we needed more background on breaking news. But it’s proven difficult to explain context accurately while under the time crunch of the rapid fire Internet era. Since Timeline isn’t focused on breaking news, it might be able to avoid that problem.

Timeline’s real struggle may come in the form of app store noise. Despite the addictive nature of the app, its initial premise is a tough sell to the procrastination masses. Surf history instead of Kim Kardashian selfies during your down time? Not a sexy pitch.

Google is reportedly creating its own on-demand ride service

Google is building its own ride hailing service, according to a Bloomberg report. The company will likely be integrating its service with its self-driving car technology.

There’s a pretty big conflict of interest here. Namely, Google Ventures is one of Uber’s big investors, and Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond serves on Uber’s board. That’s apparently how the news got out: Drummond told Uber what was happening, and now, Uber is weighing whether he can stay on the board, reported Bloomberg.

The news comes in the same hour as a TechCrunch report that Uber hired 50 senior scientists from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics branch to develop its own self-driving car. It looks like the two companies are settling down to do battle over the logistics and transportation space.

It’s a big shift from Uber and Google’s prior relationship, which was quite cozy. Google spurned Uber competitors Lyft and Sidecar by integrating only Uber into its Google Maps’ directions feature. Google’s venture arm invested in Uber in the comparatively early Series C investment, leading the $258 million round.

Google believes it’s less than five years away from bringing its driverless cars to market. At the moment, the vehicles’ speed is capped at 25 miles an hour. As the technology develops and the cars get faster, however, the next obvious step is to shlep people about.

The fact that Google is already working on such a service, means the gauntlet has been thrown. Game on Uber.

This story is developing and we’ll update as we get more information.

Ditch the hub and check out some software apps for the smart home

A growing number of people have a connected device or three in their home, but don’t really want to trouble themselves with a home automation hub or sensors or programming a smart home. That kind of effort and expense is way too much when they just want to adjust their Nest from an app or play with their Philips Hue lights while listening to their Sonos sound system.

These casually connected people are the target of a new breed of software from companies like Yonomi or Reach. The idea behind these firms and others is that customers can download an app and then control their devices from a single interface, maybe getting a little bit more from each gadget when you pull them together under that single app. I tried Yonomi, a company that is based in Austin, Texas and in Boulder, Colorado since it’s actually out of beta and available for Android (it’s not available for iOS yet).

Discovery

The free app downloaded quickly and after a brief sign up process and clicking through a license agreement that basically said they didn’t want to keep my data (but that they did share it with partners), I was in. The app started looking for devices on my Wi-Fi network and it quickly found my Nest thermostat, six Sonoses, my Hue lights and a Wemo outlet. I connected my Nest and Hue accounts and then I was done. The first time I realized anything new was going on was after a phone call when I saw a notification that Yonomi was running the Phone Call routine.

When I clicked the notification, I saw that the routine consisted of the app muting all my Sonos speakers for the call and then unmuting them when it was over. Nothing was playing, but I thought it was pretty cool. Other routines that were automatically populated on the app for me included a Welcome Home and Good Night routine. We’ll talk about Welcome Home, since it comes into play a bit later. That routine turns on the Wemo, which in my house has a lamp plugged into it and all my Sonoses say “Welcome home, Stacey,” and then they play whatever is in my Sonos favorite list at that time.

RoutineView

It’s pretty cool, and its made cooler by the fact that I don’t have to do anything to program these. However, it was less cool at 12:30am on Saturday night when my phone apparently dropped offline for a bit and then hopped back on and triggered the Welcome Home sequence. It woke my husband and me up and we raced to turn of the music that was playing throughout the house, including in our daughter’s room, before she woke up.

As you might expect, my husband was unimpressed. He has already called the Sonos greetings and good nights, “gimmicky,” and this was his breaking point.

He asked me to delete the app. I didn’t, but I did go in, and take the Sonos in my daughter’s room out of rotation for any routines. That allowed me to do something I should have done earlier: I went in and edited my routines to make the Welcome Home routine only happen between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. at night to avoid waking people up. I also took all the voice greetings off the Sonos in our master bedroom and bathroom so my husband wouldn’t be as irritated.

In talking to Kent Dickson, the CEO of Yonomi, on this week’s podcast, we discussed the Wake Up glitch and how the company is fixing it, and how users can ensure that they don’t get a 12:30am Welcome Home wakeup call if they don’t want it. Setting parameters are one way, but on the Yonomi side, they are working on improving how the phone geo-fences to eliminate false positives.

Dickson believes that the app should be as accessible as possible to people, so he doesn’t want to charge for it, and plans to consider revenue-generating options later. He wouldn’t disclose the number of users the app has after its six weeks of availability, although it has somewhere in the 1,000 download range per the Google Play store tracker. An iOS version will be out later, he said.

A demo version of the Reach app shown off at Structure Connect.

A demo version of the Reach app shown off at Structure Connect.

Dickson isn’t alone in his goals. Last Fall at our Structure Connect event I saw an app called Reach that used the Android lock screen to control a variety of connected devices including the Nest, Hue lights, Sonos, Roku and more. I liked it because it’s always a bit of a pain to drill down into a connected home app to get to the device you want to control. It’s especially galling if you’re clicking through three or four screens to turn on a light that’s four or five feet away.

The plan is to launch the Reach app in beta soon for Android. I’d like to see what options the iOS development community has in store outside of HomeKit, which will let people control individual devices from their notification screen, but may not offer ways to tie multiple devices together. Either way, it seems that we’re seeing some really interesting options out there for people who don’t want to buy a hub, but do want to control their connected devices and maybe even see if they can make them work together.

Has Snapchat peaked? Comscore numbers suggest flat growth in 2014

Snapchat’s user growth seems to have stalled toward the end of 2014, according to new Comscore numbers I obtained on Friday. As you can see from the below graph, Snapchat hit a peak around March 2014 and has slowly declined in unique visitors since then. I’ve reached out to Snapchat for comment and will update this if I hear back.

One caveat: Comscore only reports numbers from the 18 and over user group for legal reasons. Companies like Snapchat and Kik have big teen bases, so the Comscore numbers aren’t 100 percent representative. At the same time, given that Snapchat has saturated the teen audience at this point, the slow growth from the 18+ demographic is troubling.

The trend graph comes from a Comscore Mobile Metrix report that charts the number of monthly active users aged 18 and over in the United States. It looked at five messaging applications from October 2013 to October 2014 — Snapchat, Kik, WhatsApp, Line, and WeChat. It tracked “total unique app visitors,” but Comscore confirmed to me that’s the same as MAUs.

Comscore’s numbers are notoriously fickle and publishers frequently report more traffic than Comscore says they have, but in terms of overall growth trends the company is usually pretty accurate.

Comscore's Mobile Media Matrix 2015

Comscore’s Mobile Media Matrix (shows growth 2013-2014)

It’s not just Snapchat that has flatlined. Other messaging apps are seeing similar stagnation, with Kik hovering near the 15 to 16 million mark since April, WhatsApp at 7 million since March, and Line around 4 million since August. WeChat has been below 1 million since January.

So have we hit peak messaging app overload?

The Comscore graph also shows us where the most popular apps stack up against each other in the U.S. market. Snapchat is in the clear lead, despite flatlining. Kik is a not too distant second, which might surprise some. We also get a sense of WhatsApp’s American user base. The company hasn’t shared its U.S. metrics before, which led many to believe they were low.

But the fact that WhatsApp’s US monthly active users are this low — near Japanese-based Line — is new information.

 

This story has been updated since publishing to highlight the 18+ caveat higher in the post.

Coffee Meets Bagel is now a true mobile dating contender

If you’re a single, semi-techie person under the age of 40, you’re probably familiar with the mobile dating app trifecta: Tinder, Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel. The trio, with Tinder leading the way, have redefined what it means to find love on the go with simple user interfaces and minimal text baggage. There are lingering, entrenched dinosaurs like Match.com, Ok Cupid, and Plenty of Fish, but they’re not the future of romance in the smartphone era.

You can imagine my surprise, then, to discover that until Tuesday Coffee Meets Bagel didn’t actually have an Android app. It’s been around for more than two years, and 40 percent of its users were stuck using the mobile web version of the service. It’s rather remarkable the app carried on at all.

“We’re a very lean team. We still have today only 11 full time people,” co-founder Dawoon Kang told me as way of explanation. “We decided we would learn as much as possible through iOS before translating all that learning into Android.”

Until now, Coffee Meets Bagel was hindered by its lack of Android. It was shutting off more than half the smartphone market. But now the path is cleared for it to battle its rival: Up-and-coming favorite Hinge. Kang doesn’t see it that way. “There is definitely room for more than one winner,” Kang said. “A lot of single people end up using multiple services because there’s really no reason why they shouldn’t.”

She makes a fair point. Freemium mobile dating services are almost a commodity. As a young single person in San Francisco, I’m on both Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel…and Tinder, although I’m on the latter reluctantly.

Although Tinder may be thought of as the premier mobile dating app, the more popular Tinder has grown the more casual it has become. It’s dating-as-entertainment, an endless swiping past faces, addictive hits of ego boost when matches are made. It’s turned into a game that rarely translates into real life.

In its wake are the two remaining mobile romantic champions: Both Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel. Their designs keep the dating focus by limiting the number of matches a day.

With Coffee Meets Bagel’s new Android app and upcoming appearance on Shark Tank on Friday, it’s doubling down on its product.

Can another company deliver on the promise of Foursquare?

Foursquare may be struggling, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t jostling to take its place. A new app, Connect, just raised a $10.3 million Series A, in a round including Marc Benioff, to give it a shot. It calls itself a “living address book.” It’s a digital address book that syncs all your social contacts together, but it’s also a new take on Foursquare’s check-in feature.

The app shows you a map of your city with little face bubbles telling you where your friends are hanging out. There’s a key difference though. Unlike Foursquare, which requires people to “check-in”, Connect extracts data from people’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Foursquare feeds to tell you where they’re located. The black circles represent their main city, pulled from their social profile information, and the red circles represent where a person has recently posted they are. For example, if you post a status about “Having a great time at Dolores Park,” Connect will place you at Dolores Park in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. When Facebook latently notes your location for its “friends nearby” feature, Connect will pull that too.

Screenshots from Connect app

Screenshots from Connect app

The automatic information drawing removes the friction of the check-in to make your friends’ location data more readily available. You receive notifications when an out-of-town friend is visiting your city. The lead investor in Connect, Brad Bao from Kinzon Capital, told me he invested in the app because it solves a connection problem people didn’t necessarily know they had. “In a way, its similar to Uber before Uber existed,” Bao said. “There’s no way to [latently] inform my friends where I’m at.”

CEO Ryan Allis told me he spent a year and a half building the technology. We already had our surge in geolocation networking in 2011-2012. With Foursquare’s pivot, it appears the heyday might be over. But Connect’s premise intrigued me enough to try it. I liked Facebook’s “friends nearby” feature, despite its creepy vibe. It has almost resulted in me getting together with a friend I wouldn’t otherwise…such promise. Why not expand that to other networks?

But the vision of Connect seems to be a little behind the execution. On my map, there weren’t many friends in San Francisco, despite the fact that Facebook’s app clearly told me no less than three friends were all in my vicinity. That lapse in communication between the apps may be the result of some Facebook’s users privacy settings.

One of the friends the Connect app did show as being in San Francisco isn’t actually here. I texted her to double-check, and sure enough, she’s back in Boston (where she lives full time).

The promise of Foursquare — to know where your friends were so you could connect serendipitously — was so appealing, but technologically we may just not be there yet.