In 2010, while riding the sardine-packed subway in Japan, SmartNews cofounder Ken Suzuki would look up and see dozens of lifeless faces, their collective gazes absorbed by the glow of their phones. “I was on a train, and I would look at my neighbor’s smartphone and he’d be playing a game,” says Suzuki, gesturing animatedly to me over a fuzzy Skype connection. “She was playing a game! That guy over there was playing a game! And I was playing a game!” he laughs.
The reason phone games were–er, are–so big on public transit, he says, is because of the country’s communication infrastructure, which, like New York, is severed when you’re underground. “Internet connection was terrible,” says Kaisei Hamamoto, the other founding half of SmartNews. “It’s so crowded. The only thing you could do was play games because you couldn’t connect to the Internet.”
Hamamoto, who had been building out a social news reader called Crowsnest in the meantime, saw an opportunity: What if, instead of swiping at birds or spiky-haired heroes wielding giant swords on their phones, he could convince people to spend their commute time reading the news?
While Crowsnest was received well enough–winning best of show at the TechCrunch Tokyo conference in 2011–it never really posed a threat to news giants like Yahoo News, which, although they’re showing their age, still have a huge head start on any news startup. So together with Suzuki, Hamamoto pivoted, using Crowsnest’s Internet-scraping technology to build an app that was lightweight and mobile first. In December 2012, SmartNews was born.
Today, SmartNews is the second most-used news app in Japan, right behind Gunosy, with 5 million users and climbing. In 2013, the Japanese edition won a Google Play “App of the Year” award and a “Best Of” award in Apple’s App Store. Three weeks ago, the U.S. version officially launched, and you can download it for free.
Visually, SmartNews lacks the panache of Flipboard, which emphasizes personally tailored content. But that is by design. SmartNews takes a more austere approach in its presentation, powered by an underlying belief that “newsworthiness” should be, by definition, egalitarian. “We believe that the news should be for everyone. Even parents and children should be able to use it very easily,” says Hamamoto. “Our algorithm focuses on making use of the collective intelligence of every person in the world to better understand what’s important, what the things are that really matter.”
Hamamoto goes on to mention that team’s proprietary software uses a variety of signals from across the web to flag whatever its algorithms deem important. You can link your Twitter account to build a social tab, too. That’s not radically different from techniques used by other apps and services.
For users, though, what may set SmartNews apart–and what I liked about it the most–is how easy it was to open the app while commuting underground. Flick through the headlines, click on an article, and the text renders beautifully. Without Internet!
This offline reading mode is called SmartView. Clicking on a news article, by default, takes you to a read-only version of the publisher’s mobile site, complete with any advertising that’s there. For example: The mobile version of SB Nation, pictured below on the left. (Note the banner ad.) Under most circumstances, the publisher collects the click, readers get the story, and everyone is happy.
The ingenious part, though, is that once you’re on a news site, you can toggle almost immediately to SmartView, a stripped-down and super-readable view without any superfluous flourishes. Other popular news apps, like the aggregator Circa and the offline reader Flyne (for Android), have similar reading modes for when your Internet connection is spotty. But SmartNews’s speed and formatting consistency are refreshing. And they still give the content providers what they want: page views.
In the U.S. version of the app, content pre-loads in batches on your phone three times a day at times you can set: morning, afternoon, and evening. This keeps the app from eating away at your battery. The unfortunate side effect of that approach is that SmartNews is ill-equipped to handle breaking news–at least here in the U.S.–although I’m told a mechanism for dealing with fast-moving events exists in Japan and is forthcoming Stateside.
All that said, SmartNews users seem to really, really like it. Hamamoto and Suzuki claim their app has a daily active user rate in Japan of more than 30%–which works out to about 1.5 million daily readers. “Our statistics show that the average user consumes around 10 articles a day,” says Suzuki. Collectively, users spend 4.5 hours inside the app every month, which may help explain why SmartNews recently racked up $36 million in Series B funding. Overall, the news startup is estimated to be worth just over $100 million. (It plans to make money by developing an in-app ad network for its home screen.)
Will it catch on here? Who knows? Unlike Japan’s competitive landscape, there are dozens of news startups in North America hyping their own flashy features, all of which are vying for your increasingly minuscule attention span.
SmartNews, on the other hand, decidedly isn’t flashy, which is what might set it apart. It seems to believe that by stripping out the bells and whistles, it can deliver a consistently good reading experience that doesn’t totally bulldoze over publishers while giving everyday non-news junkies the stories they need to know.
The target audience, in Suzuki and Hamamoto’s estimation, is anyone who might otherwise be crushing through puzzles comprised of digital candy. “We have to provide the best experience on smartphones, regardless of location or environment, even if they are in trains or subways,” says Hamamoto. “They should be able to read the news.”