Discovering the exact formula for how news should be delivered and consumed on mobile devices might seem like a far-reaching goal, but 17-year old founder Nick D’Aloisio is trying to do just that with his iPhone app Summly. The startup has garnered plenty of attention thanks to its young founder, who at the age of 15 developed an initial product named Trimit, and then last December launched a prototype version for Summly, which was the result of working with scientists and researchers at nonprofit research intsitute SRI International. The launch drew the attention of celebrity investors Ashton Kutcher, Yoko Ono, and billionaire Li Ka Shing’s Horizon Ventures among others, for a little over $1 million in seed round financing.
The app has picked up speed after being featured as an editor’s choice in the Apple App Store, and according to D’Alosio is in the top spot for the news category in over 30 countries. “We reinvented both the user interface and technology so it will be able to take any news article and summarize it for the iPhone-sized screen to create a really beautiful experience, which is why we’ve gotten the downloads that we have, as people really see a need for the technology,” D’Aloisio said in an interview.
The company’s natural language processing and machine learning algorithm parses full articles to find key words, phrases and sentences, and then creates 400 character summaries of the article for iPhones up to the 4S, and 500 character summaries for the iPhone 5. If users wants a longer summary they can tap twice, or they have the option to view the original article. The app comes preloaded with categories and publications which the user can then customize to their liking. To share what they’re reading, users hold down a finger to access the ‘Summflower’ which lets them share the story via Facebook, Twitter, or email.
“This technology can take an article and break it down to various sentences and pick the most important sentences which when combined together create an entire paragraph,” D’Aloisio added. “We worked hard to have this new innovative UI that’s very intuitive. We had to maximize the screen real estate so that there was more room to show text-based summaries, so we’ve really combined this technology with a great user experience.”
The company is currently offering both the content and app for free to focus on building a large user base, though D’Aloisio mentioned that they’re considering several monetization options, including paying a subscription fee to access the entire original article, resulting in revenue sharing opportunities for the company and content creators.
There are already plenty of established players in the news aggregation space, with companies like Flipboard, Zite, Pulse, and more recently Prismatic tackling the way people read news on mobile devices. BetaKit also covered the recent launch of Circa, a mobile-first news reader that displays news as flashcards with maps, stats, and a short description instead of providing a summary of a longer article, with each summary compiled by the company’s team of editors. It also allow users to follow a story with details added as they become available, rather than constantly checking back to see if a story has been updated. The two approaches are quite different, so users will have to decide if they prefer a flashcard-style fact-based snapshot of a story vs. a curated summary based on a longer article, or whether an RSS-style news aggregator like Pulse makes more sense.
D’Aloisio said that the company is developing a version of Summly for Android and tablets, which will be rolled out in the near future, and the company will also be looking to fundraise a much larger Series A round. With a highly publicized launch, initial traction with users in the App Store, and early investor attention, the company will have to prove it can retain readers’ attention as they continue to be bombarded with new ways to consume content.