Wildcard aims to replace your phone's web browser with mobile cards

The web was built for desktops -- not your phone. And while we've made great strides in adopting mobile-friendly sites over the past few years, they typically offer a clunkier experience than native apps. Wildcard hopes to offer the best of both worlds for mobile. Launching today, it's an app that deconstructs mobile sites into "cards" that are easy to digest on your phone. For news sites, Wildcard feels like a fancy RSS reader. But it can also break down mobile storefronts into cards, allowing you to browse and make purchases from within the app.

After playing with it for a bit, I found the Wildcard app speedy and well-designed. Opening up collections of cards took only a few seconds and scrolling through them felt as fluid as any other native app. You'll see a title and brief summary for news stories, and you can tap into them to read the full article. While there are only a handful of mobile stores on Wildcard at the moment, I was surprised by how well its cards worked for shopping. Browsing items, adding them to my cart, and checking out were all significantly faster than most mobile sites. When checking out, Wildcard creates a virtual user that's indistinguishable from someone actually visiting that company's mobile storefront. (And yes, the company says it handles payments as securely as any modern web browser.)

Wildcard originally wanted to focus its app on mobile commerce, but the launch of other mobile-focused storefronts like Spring pushed it to consider broader uses for cards. Now, the company has far greater ambitions. "We want to replace mobile Safari or mobile Chrome on your phone," Khoi Vinh, the company's vice president of user experience, told us in an interview. "I think the metaphor of pages worked for the desktop, but it's the wrong metaphor for phones... Cards are really the right metaphor -- they're much more appropriate to how people consume content on a phone."

From the app's home screen you can search cards, view trending searches, explore some featured collections of cards, or explore specific categories. As Wildcard acquires more content, Vinh says search could end up being the company's "bread and butter." While it'd be tough for it to offer something faster than Google, it has the advantage of grabbing results that are easier to explore, rather than just a bundle of links. As a news reader, Wildcard feels reminiscent of apps like Feedly. There's no offline reading capability yet, unfortunately, but Vinh says it's coming. The company is also planning to launch a web version of its platform, which may sound a tad redundant, but is necessary to make cards easy to share.

While certainly ambitious, Wildcard's success will depend on cards becoming more than just a niche way of viewing the web. You can add your own site to Wildcard by following this developer documentation. Vinh said he was able to bring his personal website to the app simply by enabling Twitter cards with a Wordpress plugin and pointing to his RSS feed. The company is also working on recruiting partners, who will get more control over how their cards are displayed in the app.

Using virtual cards to organize information goes all the way back to HyperCard on early Macs. But it's seen a sort of renaissance with the rise of mobile. Palm's ill-fated WebOS relied heavily on a "card" metaphor for juggling apps, an idea that you can see glimpses of in Android and iOS today. And we're seeing cards in things like Google Now, Twitter, and of course, Pinterest. They all use cards in different ways, but the basic ideas hold true: They serve as containers for information that look particularly great on mobile.