Meet Tech’s Latest Young Millionaire  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2013

Meet Tech’s Latest Young Millionaire   

Innovator Nick D’Aloisio, 17, cashes in as Yahoo! acquires his story-summarizing app. Tues., March 26, 2012.

By Lucy Westcott
Lucy Westcott (lucywestcott6@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.      


When Nick D'Aloisio got his first Mac at age nine, little did he know that eight years later he'd be one of the world's youngest self-made millionaires.

After his first Mac allowed a young D'Aloisio to tinker with iMovie and FinalCut, at 12 he downloaded his first iPhone development kit. At 15, he started his first company, Frimby Limited, and began working on the technology that would eventually become Summly, an i-Phone app that summarizes news stories.


Summly founder and new Yahoo! employee Nick D'Aloisio. Credit: Summly.com.

"That's when I realised the potential of this idea and decided to take some time out to pursue it," D'Aloisio said in an e-mail interview earlier this month. On Monday, Yahoo! acquired Summly for an estimated $30 million, propelling D'Aloisio into the ranks of Mark Zuckerberg and Tumblr founder David Karp, boy wonders whose ability to combine technology with ideas everyone realized they needed led to fortune.

The tech Web site AllThingsD estimates that D'Aloisio and the two Summly employees who will join him at Yahoo! will net $10 million apiece. Not too shabby a payout for someone who still has two years to go before graduating from high school.

Summly has now been removed from the iPhone store, and the app's technology will be reincarnated via Yahoo! Mobile initiatives. "We expect our summarization technology will soon return to multiple Yahoo! products - see this as a 'power nap' so to speak," D'Aloisio wrote on Summly's Web site.

Powered by an algorithm, Summly is an iPhone app whose mission is to summarize the content of news stories, pulling out their most relevant portions. The app delivers summaries (or "Summlies") of 400 characters or less. Designed for an iPhone screen and tasked with stripping longer stories to their essentials, the premise of Summly is that it already knows what you want to know.

Summly was born when London-based D'Aloisio was frustrated using Google while studying for a history exam.

"If I found myself on a site that was interesting. I was reading it and that was wasting time. I needed..a way of simplifying and summarising these Web searches," D'Aloisio says. "Google has Instant Preview, but that is just an image of the page. What I wanted was a content preview."

The first iteration of Summly, called Trimit, debuted in 2011 when D'Aloisio was 15. To use the iPhone app, readers copied and pasted a URL into Trimit and received a summary of the page's content. Trimit attracted initial investment from Horizons Investments and Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing, which allowed the young innovator to collate a close-knit team to develop the app.

"Eventually we got put in touch with people like Ashton Kutcher and Yoko Ono who were very keen to be part of our success," D'Aloisio says. Kutcher and Ono invested in the project, and their name recognition gave it cachet.

Although the market for mobile news apps was already crowded by the time D'Aloisio arrived, he saw the potential for his approach.

"No apps were tailoring content to the mobile screen," he says. "Most apps sought to solve the clumsy mobile news experience by allowing for user personalisation, [but] this still requires users to click through the content before discovering if it's useful or interesting."

Summly's particular advantage, D'Aloisio says, is that its users can browse a wider range of content and only have to load the stories they find most compelling after checking out the summaries.

D'Aloisio says that by using the technique called natural language processing, his app can think like a human being and determine what is most relevant in a story. Then it compiles those most meaningful segments into a summary that works on a smartphone screen.

If, after checking out the condensed version, readers want more, they can access the full article by simply swiping downwards over the summary. "This is all done automatically, without any human input," D'Aloisio says.

With the mission clear, the Summly team had to come up with inventive and stylish ways of displaying content and menu options. For example, they created the Summflower, whose four petals allow users to share summarised content on social media.

"We wanted to have as clear a screen as possible, with no buttons, just a full screen of content," D'Aloisio says. "I do see mobile news moving in this direction as users seek a more elegant way to view content."

And while there's plenty of tapping, stroking and scrolling to be done, Summly is entirely click-free.

"An uncluttered page allows us to make full use of even the smallest of screen sizes," D'Aloisio says.

But what does this mean for news, especially now that Summly's technology is heading into the mainstream? While D'Aloisio believes his generation is more tech-savvy than any previous generation, he doesn't intend for Summly to be a substitute for a well-crafted news story.

"Summly does not present a new form of media in that our summaries are not supposed to replace good journalism," D'Aloisio says. "Instead, our technology re-imagines the way this content is presented."

Mathew Ingram, blogger and writer for business and technology Web site GigaOM, says applications like Summly, and a similar mobile-oriented news summarizing app called Circa, are interesting "in that they are trying to take news and move it into a mobile world, which is where more and more people are consuming their news."

Ingram prefers Circa, which has an editorial team that composes summaries rather than relying on an algorithm.

"Whether people are getting enough news from [the summaries] is a good question," Ingram says. "I suppose the amount of information they get is about the same as they might get from a radio broadcast with a news brief, or a short update on CNN."

In November, Summly's first month, the app gained over half a million users who read over 30 million summaries, according to data on the company's Web site. Summly has determined that users have saved a combined 28 years by using the app, adding 21 minutes to their lives each month.

Even if readers only read the summaries, any way of getting news and information to consumers is a good thing, Ingram says. "Plenty of people still don't consume much news at all, so anything would be an improvement, I suppose."

D'Aloisio and Co. were just a few days away from launching a version of Summly for Android phones when the Yahoo! deal was announced. The project has been scrapped.

In a statement, Yahoo! said that while the app has been shut down, "We will acquire the technology and you'll see it come to life throughout Yahoo!'s mobile experiences soon."

While D'Aloisio will be quite busy as Yahoo! comes into the picture, his entire life isn't focused on being technology's next bright young thing. He also enjoys playing cricket and spending time with his girlfriend.

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