The company’s new news app aggregates content based on your interests, reading habits and your friends — and it takes the digital magazine concept to the extreme.
By JP Mangalindan, writer-reporter
FORTUNE — In the year since Flipboard debuted at last year’s Brainstorm Tech conference, the news app space has exploded. Users looking for help sifting through online content have a number to choose from: Pulse, FLUD, Zite, News360, and the recently introduced Float to name just a few.
With Editions, AOL (AOL) is giving mobile users yet another option. The app really differentiates itself — and that may be a draw to some but a turn-off to others. The iPad app pushes the “digital magazine” concept even further than the buzzed-about Flipboard, which reformats Web stories into a magazine-like layout.
Editions does that and more. Once you’ve downloaded it, the app prompts you to connect up to three accounts — Facebook, Twitter and, naturally, AIM — and select different categories of content to be included in a digital issue delivered once a day at a given time. Each issue has a cover touting one particular story and is broken up into sections. The first page acts as a landing page, touting the cover story along with the day’s weather and a calendar of Facebook friends’ birthdays. The next page serves up a traditional table of contents. Each magazine section grabs a photo from one of the included stories, adds a two-tone effect to make it look print-like, and splashes it onto an opening page. All in all, very magazine-y.
And as for the actual content, Editions presents a mix, based on interests you select — technology, entertainment, health and fitness, and so on — and what friends and followers are posting to your social networks as well as general news.
“We wanted to give people a holistic view of their day,” says Sol Lipman, director of AOL’s Mobile First team. “It’s not enough to have socially curated content like Flipboard, and it’s not enough to have stuff like Zite. It’s important to have top news, world news, local news, to know what’s going on in your scale of interests, and to also have some serendipity.”
Eventually, Editions is supposed to adapt to your behavior based on which stories and outlets you actually read. But unlike many of its peers, each “Edition” is a self-contained finite issue generally between 35 and 50 pages of aggregated content. It won’t update with new stories as the day goes on. Instead, new stories may get scraped and included in the next day’s issue. That’s in stark contrast to the likes of Flipboard and Pulse, which refresh periodically throughout each day.
According to AOL, there’s a reason for that.
“We wanted to give people something that people could finish,” says Lipman. “We felt like there’s an endless amount of real-time news and real-time news apps, and with those, you’re never done. There’s this endless quest for more. We wanted something users could ‘snack on’ for content and go deep on others, something they could spend 30 minutes while drinking coffee, enjoy in the morning, and then say they’re done.”
I spent three days wading through Editions, which proved to have its pluses and minuses. The presentation is top-notch, and little flourishes like the cover, full-page section image openers, and even the Facebook friends’ birthday sidebar and horoscopes were definitely appealing. They create a package that, in some ways, approximates a print publication. Lipman’s certainly right about one aspect: there’s something satisfying about getting a notification in the morning that the newest issue is ready for you. (Even better is having that issue delivered to you — and not having to pay for it.)
There are a few quirks, though. Because these types of apps have to make nice with publications, Editions basically opens up a tweaked browser window to present stories from non-AOL outlets. The transition is quick enough for the most part, but it’s jarring to go from Editions’ clean interface to another Web site that’s not so visually appealing. The concession is understandable but it does hurt the user experience. (After all, what print publication basically shuttles you over to another outlet to read a story?)
Little things could also be polished. When you tap to read something, several topical tags pop up at the top which can be selected. So if you’re reading a story about say, iPhone 5 rumors, several related tags will pop up for users to select so they can see more (or less) of a particular topic in the future. For the most part it works well, but sometimes, there are glaring omissions. Reading a story about say, Captain America, Editions will sometimes suggest tags for every related topic but Captain America. (Lipman admits that in general, there are features which the team still needs to fine-tune.)
But what will throw a good chunk of potential users is the lack of real-time news updates. By ignoring them, Editions is technically providing a more print-like experience, but at the same time, it’s also ignoring one of the biggest reasons people look to the Web and social networks in the first place, and it’s also arguably one of the biggest reasons many print publications find themselves scrambling to adapt to the digital era. During my hands-on time, I was glad to “finish” an issue, but also frustrated that I couldn’t reference it for breaking news. For some, this could be make or break.