Last week, Apple announced News, an algorithmically curated news recommendation app, which has been territory well-explored to middling success by services like Flipboard and Zite. As usual, developers and reporters cheered the arrival of a new Apple offering, but there was at least one person bored by the new product. Trond Werner Hansen, the veteran browser developer who helped redesign both Opera and Firefox, thought News was stupid.
“Look at how people use Spotify: you start using it, and you don’t stop,” says Hansen. “But is anyone doing that with Flipboard? No, because no one really wants to read news on a closed publishing platform like Flipboard, Apple News, or Facebook Instant Articles, let alone just read the things an algorithm tells them to read. It’s bullshit.”
Hansen’s got an alternative. He’s launched Kite, a new app that is a social network for sharing Internet articles with your followers, much the same way Instagram is a social network for sharing your photos. But look closer, and you’ll see that Kite is more than “just” a social network for reading: it’s actually a beautiful, full-featured web browser, which substitutes a social graph for the URL bar.
When you first load up Kite, it looks like any other social network. You’re dumped into a stream of updates from people you follow, each one linking a story or webpage they think is worth sharing. Right now, the first three stories in my feed are an Economist piece on the Greek Euro crisis, an article on Ben Carson’s bizarro presidential campaign, and a story with the provocative headline: “Interviews With Four Small-Penis Havers.”
I can like these articles, save them to my reading list for later (the equivalent of favoriting them), comment, or share. There are even a few fun little tweaks there–for example, the “Like” button in Kite is an emoji, which you choose whenever you share an article. But in the end, it’s all about getting recommendations on what to read from those you actually care about.
“People don’t want an algorithm telling them what to read, they want to get a peek at the reading lists of people they find interesting,” Hansen claims. “We’ve had algorithms that can tell you what to read for 20 years. No one’s interested. I want to know what interesting people like President Obama and Stephen Fry are reading every day. Right now, that’s not really possible—there’s nothing dedicated to that. I want Kite to be able to unlock that value.”
Yet Kite didn’t start out as a social network. It started out as yet another attempt by Hansen to rethink the web browser.
Asked to look into creating an iPad browser for Mozilla back in 2012, Hansen had an epiphany. “On the desktop, your browser is a generic container for pretty much everything: websites, email, games, you name it,” Hansen says. “But on a smartphone, that generic container is the phone. It just doesn’t make sense to put a generic container within a container. It doesn’t facilitate anyone’s workflow.”
In other words, a decent mobile browser needs to have a greater purpose than serving as a generic window into the web. For Kite, that purpose is finding things to experience on the Internet, sharing these things with others, and talking about them. Note the use of the word “purpose” instead of “problem” though.
“The reason Silicon Valley companies have been failing in this space since RSS is because they view news curation as a problem to be solved, like building a bridge,” Hansen says. “But it’s not a problem: content is culture. You don’t ‘solve’ culture: you just facilitate the flow of its consumption.”
That’s why Kite is more than just a social network. Put as simply as possible, Kite is a web browser that you navigate by way of a social recommendations instead of through search results and URLs. Although Kite will default to showing you a stream of recommendated articles from people you follow when you load up the app, swiping to the right will also reveal an underlying layer which gives you access to a beautiful, lightning-fast web browser. You can tap on any of the news site shortcuts provided by the app, or navigate to a website of your choice and mark it a favorite. What makes Kite, as a browser, different from the likes of Chrome and Safari is that it is designed exclusively for reading and sharing. So no matter where you are, you can save the page you’re reading for later, post it to your stream, or favorite its parent site so you can more easily read its content later. Every web page is presented in beautiful full screen view, with a bare minimum of UI elements distracting you from the words and pictures on the page.
Kite can also cooperate with other social networks, like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, so you can share what you’re reading there. But like Instagram, Kite can remain totally self-contained if you want. It doesn’t have to piggy-back off Facebook or Twitter’s APIs to be “social.” Kite is social all on its own.
Kite’s a difficult app to sum up, something even Hansen admits. “We’re struggling with the messaging,” he tells me, ruefully. “We tell people: this is your app for reading and sharing. But they still need to see it and actually use it for themselves to really get it.”
Over time, Hansen hopes that Kite won’t just be a beloved social network, but a user’s primary web browser. Any social network, though, is only as good as the strength of the community of people already trying it, and in that regard, Kite is still in infancy. Despite the polish of the software itself, Kite’s network will mostly consist of raw potential until it gets more users.
If you’d like to try Kite, you can download it from the App Store here. When you sign up, it will ask you to enter a “recommender” to start piecing together your network. Tell ’em “drcrypt” sent ya, and maybe, we can make this app happen together.