The Summly (n. “summarized version of a news article optimized for iPhone”) might look something like this: On his 17th birthday last Thursday, Nick D’Aloisio (pictured) and his dozen-strong team relaunched Summly, an iPhone app that uses natural language processing and “rocket science” to automatically summarize the news into mobile-friendly, 350-500 character bites. In essence, the app aims to help you cut through the deluge of “drivel” that inundates the newsosphere, with as much style as Arne Jacobson’s Egg Chair – the company’s logo.
“It’s a representation of the egg chair, not the exact egg chair,” specified D’Alosio in a telephone interview with Editors Weblog this afternoon. “The idea is that chairs themselves are kind of synonymous with sitting down, relaxing and reading news, so we decided to take the concept and [give it] a slight twist, with a really modernist approach and minimalist user interface,” he said, pointing out the two S’s that lurk in the symbol.
It is actually a rather large twist, given that Summly is decidedly designed for speed-readers. Backed by the likes of Ashton Kutcher, Stephen Fry, and Yoko Ono, Summly was first unveiled in December 2011, and brought out of beta on the founder's birthday. “We’ve worked very hard with this algorithm to take any news article and summarize it, and that has been really twelve months of work with SRI to get to that place,” said D’Aloisio, speaking of Summly's collaboration with the famed Stanford Research Institute. Unlike Circa and YouMag, both of which employ human journalists to summarize the news, Summly is fully automated. “We don’t have any humans doing this, it’s 100 percent algorithmic,” he continued.
The app is smooth to the touch, with no intrusive navigation menus and much hot corner-like swiping (good descriptions of its user interface can be found here and here), but the language processing is not always as natural as one might hope. For example, the headline on a summarized Mashable article reads, “Apple Added 12,” sawing off the crucial “-400 Full-Time Employees in the Past Year.” The condensed version of the article is grammatically correct, but not written in Egg Chair-caliber English. Wired Gadget Lab’s Christina Bonnington gives the summaries a C grade overall. However, she acknowledges that the “idea of being able to digest brief, accurate summaries sounds extraordinarily convenient.”
Many of the characters that have recently been spilled on Summly have focused on that of D’Aloisio. Labeled “The Internet’s newest boy genius” by GigaOM’s Om Malik, D’Aloisio taught himself to code at age 12, and raised his first round of venture capital at age 15. The majority of his team is based in London, where he is working toward his International Baccalaureate at Kings College School. But for D’Aloisio, his age is only relevant insofar as it places him squarely in the digital native demographic; he designed the app with his fellow millennials (the generation born after 1982) in mind. "I designed Summly because I felt that my generation wasn't consuming traditional news anymore,” he has claimed.
So what kind of news does his generation consume, we inquired. “I think people really want to consume the news in an efficient and concise manner,” he explained. “People my age, they’re kind of a bit impatient. They want news fast and instantaneously.” Asked about his own daily news habits, the first two sources he listed were Facebook and Twitter. “I see Facebook as my personal news source for what’s happened in my social group, and I follow a lot of news sources on Twitter,” he said, listing off news organisations such as Time, Fortune, Forbes, AP, Reuters, TechCruch and Mashable. “It kind of varies,” he continued. “I’ll get my news on Summly on a mobile device, but when I’m on a desktop I’ll read the BBC homepage, or Twitter, or the Daily Mail site.”
This all fits well with The New York Times' recent research on the young, mobile youth. But doesn’t he ever lean back in an egg chair with long form on the weekends, we wondered? His answer began with a musical umm– the sole lapse into millenial speech patterns during a highly efficient and concise interview. “I only click onto longform when I feel it’s appropriate; if I want to read the full story,” he answered. "I don’t necessarily want to read– I can consume so much quicker with Summly and Twitter... and then if I’m really interested I’ll click through. Otherwise you just don’t have the time to click and read every full story. Even when it comes to the weekends, I’ve traditionally always read online stuff,” he concluded.
The digital native generation as a whole is frequently accused of having a Tweet-length attention span, and of lacking in-depth knowledge, but D’Aloisio expressed no fear that his app might contribute to such shortcomings. “I think it will increase the knowledge base because it will increase the discoverability of content that people would otherwise never have clicked on,” he said. Nor did he fear negative reactions from journalists or publishers, who might not all take a shine to Summly’s ability to reduce their work to easily digestible bites. “The summaries themselves are not a substitution for full-length content," he emphasised. "Because in order to produce a summary we have to summarize a full article. So there needs to be that source of journalistic content,” he went on. “I think it’s actually increasing the exposure of that content… If anything we’re helping publishers because we’re making their content look beautiful, and reformatting on mobile for free.”
Indeed, Summly has already signed a licensing deal with News Corporation, which allows it to offer summaries of paywalled content. “If you want to get further than the summaries, then that’s where the paywall mechanism kicks in,” D’Aloisio said, adding that a pay-per-article deal is “in the works” with News Corporation and other publishers, but declining to provide specifics. Monetisation, for now, is not a top priority, but the founder appeared to be optimistic about Summly’s future prospects, citing options such as a subscription model, a pay-per-install model, or even seeking revenue through targeted ads (which he admits would be "pretty hard to nail.")
The so-called “boy genius” does not come from a family of computer programmers; his father works in commodities, and his mother is a lawyer. Moreover, he is too modest to accept the nickname that the Internet has bestowed upon him. “It’s way to early to say things like that,” he cautioned. “There are a lot of people behind Summly. There is no way I could have got here without the help of everyone else.”
Still curious? Watch Summly's promotional video: