Published: Friday, March 29, 2013

The future of search only cost $30 million

tc04On the surface, Nick D’Aloisio’s story is the kind tech lives for, and sometimes regrets. It’s the tale of a kid selling an obscure startup for an inflated price, and then it becomes as irrelevant as Netscape, and its buyer’s remorse is part of the company’s enduring legacy.

But the story of Summly, a startup whose app appeared in the Apple Store only five months ago and was purchased on Monday by Yahoo for a reported $30 million, isn’t part of this trite arc.

This isn’t a boilerplate tale about a youngster hitting the jackpot, a former Internet giant trying to buy a relevance makeover, or even about an intriguing programmatic way to summarize news. It is about the future of search.

D’Aloisio’s youth – he’s 17 – and windfall are interesting data points, even if all the work behind the magic algorithm isn’t the sole product of this high schooler’s brain. Like all really good ideas, Summly’s is simple: Anything can be summarized, but by having a computer do it,  the number of things you can summarize — and the speed with which it can be done — are massively increased. As an app, it filtered news stories and — Presto Chango! — spit out the CliffsNotes version, optimized for a smartphone’s tiny screen (and our infinitesimal attention span).

If nothing else, D’Aloisio put together a company with serious backers — the first was when he was 15, and then some eyebrow-raising names like Yoko Ono and Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher followed. These investors were either captivated by this young man or captivated by his idea, despite him.

Summly got off to a decent start in downloads, but it was a free app without an obvious business model other than charging publishers to be featured on the app, or selling ads, neither of which are exactly a slam-dunk.

And that’s because, however cool it sounds to have an automated way of summarizing the news, it really isn’t all that exciting. In defense of my profession, that’s pretty much what the  first 2-3 paragraphs are meant to do, no matter how long we ramble on. Taking long stories and making them shorter because smartphone screens are small sounds like the cover story.

The real value in Summly: Not summarizing the news. Summarizing the Internet.

Here’s my wild speculation: Summarizing news stories was Summly’s proof of concept. It was never meant to be a consumer item but was field tested with its true purpose concealed: As a potentially game-changing search engine layer that could dramatically improve the relevancy and coherence of results.

View Summly as part of something, The Semantic Web, just taking form. The Semantic Web is one in which we can “ask” questions any way we want, and know that we’ll be understood. We’d communicate with the Web the way we communicate with each other, without any special rules about syntax or grammar apart from the common language we share.

Siri, Apple’s celebrated iPhone personal assistant, is part of this nascent trend to “humanize” our relationship with computers and data — I likened it to a poor man’s Watson in my tech predictions for this year. Siri’s a good listener — I use it to transcribe all the time — but it’s not very intelligent even though it works with some excellent databases like Wolfram Alpha, IMDB and Yelp, and defers tp Google search when all else fails.

Imagine a world where something like Siri interpreted your command, Summly ran across the Internet collecting information, came back in fractions of a second and gave you a perfect reply? No more hits based on a single word in the comments. Content farms could more easily be weeded out. SEO as we know it might be rendered obsolete.

We’d be closer to the data. The methods by which we access the medium wouldn’t matter nearly as much. It would be like living on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

What price would you put on that?

Search is a golden plank in the Internet platform, and refinements are always being made by the big three — Bing, Yahoo and especially market-leader Google, whose “Panda” algorithm tries to keep up with the constant need to refine results.

I’m betting that Summly itself develops into a powerful weapon to help search results stay relevant. If that happens, we’ll be laughing at what a bargain it really was.

John C Abell is a Reuters columnist and reviewer for Reuters Go Bag.