As someone who majored in history but never took a journalism course in my life, I’ve always maintained that it’s impossible to understand the present without knowing the past. If Apple announces a smartwatch, my mind will turn to past Apple product launches, all the way back to the 1970s. When someone declares that the web is dead, I have flashbacks to previous technologies whose obituaries were written prematurely. And so on.
Which is why a new iPhone news app called Timeline speaks to me. Like the influential app Circa, it features original content by actual journalists, and chops up everything into “atoms”–snippets of information which can stand alone or be read in sequence. But even when a Timeline story has a current news hook, as most do, the atoms stretch back through the decades and, sometimes, centuries. It makes everything into an epic.
For instance, a package titled “Will China Ever Tolerate Democracy?” starts with a few paragraphs about the First Opium War in 1841. One on the present crash of oil prices includes chunks about OPEC being founded in 1960; OPEC boycotting Israel’s allies during the Yom Kippur War in 1973; another collapse in prices in 1986; the impact on the oil business of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991; and more. Even a story on on ISIS hacking the U.S. Central Command’s YouTube account kicks off with a propaganda poster from the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Timeline’s press materials quote a happy beta tester talking about switching to the app as a primary source of news. I can’t imagine doing that, at least with the version I tried a couple of days before it went live on the iOS App Store. The content isn’t a remotely comprehensive snapshot of the day’s news. There’s no search feature, and no personalization tools which help it understand what topics you care about.
What’s interesting about Timeline isn’t its take on the news of the moment, but the context it provides by looking backward. But I can’t imagine anyone–even history nuts like me–wanting to travel back in time for every single story. In short, the app feels less like the sort of thing you’d hit repeatedly through the day to see what was new in the world, and more like something you’d spend occasional quality time with when you had the time to really dig into it.
Still, version 1.0 of the app is slick, fun, and informative. And, most of all, unique–much more likely to supplement your current news sources than to replace them. The company says that version 1.5 will arrive in February, with more features such as algorithms which make finding stories easier; iPad and Android editions are also in the works.
Here’s Timeline’s own video about itself.