Many this week celebrated the latest tech wunderkind, a British teenager who made a fortune selling an app that boils down news reports, no matter how important or complex, into a pithy 400 characters. But for some of those who prefer heartier servings of news, the development carried at least a whiff of the apocalypse.
For perspective: On Summly, the app that Yahoo bought from 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio for $30 million, this article would already be done, having ended midway through the word “D’Aloisio.”
His fortune-making insight was that people on the go — in line for coffee or killing time between innings of a baseball game — may want no more information than can fit on the screen of a typical smartphone. This service is made possible not by underpaid 20-somethings, as was typical for earlier generations of news aggregators, but by an algorithm designed to cull the essence of reports from traditional news sources.
“They’re just making it easier to take readers away,” grumbled veteran newspaper company analyst John Morton. “Even in the digital world, it is taking work away from humans.”
But having computers reduce news to handy digests is not, by itself, a revolution. Yahoo itself has long sent automated news reports on fantasy football game results to team owners. Rather, the rise of Summly highlights how much the future of news and information is being shaped around the peculiar features of smartphones, which are small, perpetually online and rarely far from the restless hands of their owners.
There are more than a billion mobile devices in the world, and almost everywhere they are upending business models. That includes those of the winners of previous rounds of tech disruption, such as Yahoo, that grew strong on the spread of high-speed Internet connections to desktop and laptop computers, spiking demand for online news, information and other popular content.
Yahoo’s new chief executive, Marissa Mayer, bought Summly to aid her drive to make the company better positioned for the shift toward mobile devices. Her former employer, Google, is wrestling with similar issues, albeit in different ways. So is her former Google colleague, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook. (Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board.)
All these companies are looking for ways to profit from the short, intermittent attention spans of mobile users, who may search for movie trivia at a dinner party yet may not linger long enough to read a profile of an obscure actor. The traditional way to make money is through advertisements, but drawing attention to a tiny ad hanging on the bottom of the screen is even more difficult, especially compared with the opportunity offered by the luxury of space on a Web page accessed from a desktop computer.
That has led, for example, to Facebook allowing advertising messages that specifically target the news feeds of its mobile users, while Google in recent years has built the world’s most popular mobile operating system, Android. It guarantees that its highly profitable search business — which is supported by paid ad links — will always have a place on smartphone screens, no matter how small.
The push to aggregate news and information into bite-size chunks dates back more than a decade, and it only appears to be accelerating with the shift to mobile. About the same time that Summly launched in November, an app called Circa did roughly the same thing using human editors.
“It is not earth-shaking in an of itself,” said Ken Doctor, an industry analyst for Outsell. “This has been a steady trend for 20 years.”
Yet whoever wins the fight for fast, efficient, smartphone-friendly news will be tapping an important market. Already about one-third of the traffic to U.S.-based news sites comes from mobile devices, up from a quarter a year ago. Over the next few years, it is expected to push past half, said Doctor.
D’Aloisio shrewdly called Summly’s algorithm “genetic,” meaning that its results sound like something that a human would generate. He also has expressed disdain for scrolling down a smartphone screen, which readers of full-size articles must do repeatedly to reach the end.
For traditional news organizations, having already lost billions of dollars to Silicon Valley over the last decade, the new technology could further undermine efforts to keep readers, some analysts fear. But the surging popularity of mobile devices offers at least the possibility of a new beginning, others say. Summly — or other apps drawing on its insights about the attention spans of smartphone users — might be part of that, as a first stop in news consumption, not a last one.
“It could be that something like Summly is an appetizer that make you want more,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, a think tank. “Are these new technologies a threat or a doorway?”
The global community of smartphone users is fast-growing, affluent and young — all qualities coveted by news organizations, whose audiences increasingly have skewed toward middle age and beyond as print circulation and the viewership of broadcast news shows have declined. Younger audiences meanwhile have moved online, often to sites that are free.
News long has been shaped to fit popular — and profitable — methods of delivery. Newspaper writing typically was measured in column inches, with particular priority to getting the most important revelations on the front page. Television newscasts worked in the spaces between commercials. Radio reporters learned to talk fast, to deliver headlines amid weather and traffic updates for busy commuters.
While Yahoo is betting that Summly fits our mobile age, it’s far from clear what services will win the enduring allegiances of customers. There could be several, with some specializing in short and to the point, others in deep and nuanced.
“The two-minute [television] update hasn’t replaced ‘60 Minutes,’ ” said former CBS News executive Andrew Heyward, now a news industry consultant. “The person who’s inclined to read a piece in the New Yorker isn’t going to be satisfied with the Summly version.”
Sign up today to receive #thecircuit, a daily roundup of the latest tech policy news from Washington and how it is shaping business, entertainment and science.