Yahoo and Summly: CliffsNotes for the Mobile Era?

The IT industry is no stranger to youth worship, but Yahoo’s multimillion-dollar deal for Summly pushes that notion into cradle-robbing — well, high school-robbing, anyway — territory. That’s because the punchline beneath the headlines is the age of Summly founder. Nick D’Aloisio, 17 — and a little more than a year short of high school graduation — appears to have qualified as the world’s youngest VC-backed entrepreneur.

What does Summly do, and why would Yahoo — a company in the process of being reimagined, reorganized and, one hopes, reinvigorated by a controversial new CEO — commit a reported US$30 million for a company run by a kid who hasn’t yet attended his junior prom?

Tall Order

Summly has been called a “news-reading app,” but that’s a bit thin as a description. What the company created is an app — based on what D’Aloisio describes as an “automatic summarization algorithm” — that robotically scans multipage articles, reports, etc., and summarizes them into 400 words or less so they can be quickly and comfortably read on a smartphone or other mobile device.

D’Aloisio was trying “to solve a problem that is often summed up with the abbreviation tl;dr: ‘too long; didn’t read,'” a New York Times report noted. So call Summly Cliff’s Notes for the mobile era.

The problem D’Aloisio attacks with his “automatic summarization algorithm” is hardly new or unique. In fact, some RSS readers claim or appear to offer similar functionality, and other news-reader startups are garnering their own share of attention (LinkedIn is rumored to be sniffing around Pulse).

Some talking heads have suggested that since Summly licensed core technologies from SRI International — an R&D firm that has done yeoman’s work in a variety of text and speech applications — the brouhaha is little more than an exercise in PR aggrandizement. This strikes me as petty, since Summly is just one of dozens of businesses –including some mainline IT players — doing business with SRI.

It also denigrates what Summly has achieved. Robotic reading and summarization has as many chances to get things wrong as right. So preserving the factual meaning of complex written material while summarizing it into interesting, engaging and entertaining 400-word “snapshots” is at the higher end of the difficulty scale.

Bottom line: If D’Aloisio’s creation delivers what the Yahoo investment seems to suggest, it could be worth every penny.

Where’s the Spark?

What will Yahoo do with Summly technology? Well, after pulling the Summly iPhone app, causing a flutter among dedicated users, the company has gone mute beyond saying, “You will see the technology come to life throughout Yahoo!’s mobile experiences soon.”

Killing the app is a perfectly natural first step. Trying to monetize a relatively arcane technology — especially one that appears to have a good deal of competition — at a buck or two per download is a chump’s game.

Instead, Summly will be highlighted in the short term in various Yahoo-branded services aimed specifically at mobile users and the advertisers hoping to connect with them. If the technology is truly unique and as powerful as Yahoo’s investment seems to indicate, its presence and influence is likely to impact an ever wider range of the company’s offerings. For an organization trying hard to differentiate itself, that counts for something.

Yahoo may also be betting that Summly can help it monetize one of IT’s most historically dramatic tectonic shifts — Big Data. The fact is that as the volume of content and the number of information resources continue to grow unmanageably, effective and accurate robotic summarization technologies could be critical for helping people make sense of the world around them.

That makes Summly seem enticing, but it’s also controversial. As anyone familiar with Cliff’s Notes can attest, boiling down a complex entity into a handful of easily learned points is similar to taxidermy.

The result may be recognizable, but it tends to lack whatever made it memorable and unique. What Summly and other similar technologies do may be clever or even elegant technologically, but whether they will provide actual value or eventually be seen as a sort of Aspergian parlor trick remains to be seen.

Yahoo has plunked down a $30 million bet on the former outcome.

Charles King

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace. Though Pund-IT provides consulting and other services to technology vendors, the opinions expressed in this commentary are King's alone.

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