Nick D’Aloisio, Summly and the power of simplicity

The first thing you notice about Nick D’Aloisio is the ease with which he delivers his genius, a polished and endearing display of intellect, wit and self-deprecating humor.

It’s not the image that first comes to mind when you read about a 17-year-old computer programming whiz who just sold a mobile app to a media giant for a reported $30 million. You might think brainy, introverted or at the very least a touch shy, but D’Aloisio doesn’t portray any of those qualities when speaking publicly about the product he developed.

Here, watch him with Charlie Rose. He’s an impressive guy.

D’Aloisio has spent the past two years developing Summly, a news-reading application that takes textual stories and reproduces them in concise summaries that you or I can quickly scan on our phones while we’re waiting in line for lunch. The mission statement of the product could be simply: “In a world where people have less time but more to consume, deliver the information they want as efficiently and conveniently as possible.”

What D’Aloisio spent two years refining – and the thing that Yahoo! is purchasing – is an algorithm that summarizes web stories for mobile devices. He had no team – this was a one-man production (other than, of course, funds from investors).

So when you consider that D’Aloisio did this essentially by himself as a “summer and weekend project,” and you consider he still has a year-and-a-half of high school to complete, and you see the reported purchase price of $30 million, and you see him express his visions to Charlie Rose with such poise and self-awareness, it’s natural to think, “Damn … how does someone do THAT?”

Oh, uncommon brilliance, for sure. But there’s more to it than that, something that’s too easy to overlook when thinking of “the next big” anything: simplicity.

All grand products start with a simple mission. For Summly, it was this: Make news easier to consume by making it more concise.

It takes savvy and intellect and intuitiveness to evaluate a market’s consumption habits and make a sound business judgment based on that evaluation – which D’Aloisio did by concluding there’s an entire generation now that consumes content solely via mobile devices, and that generation doesn’t want to waste time on things it doesn’t want to waste time on – but that evaluation then needs a simple mission to launch it into action. An idea can’t begin with, “I want to create an app that changes how people consume news.” You have to start with the how.

Think of other landscape-changing products that are now wildly successful and ask, “How did those begin?”

I doubt Mark Zuckerberg, when he set out to create FaceBook, started with a social world worth billions of dollars that simultaneously shrinks the globe and makes it a vast and unrestricted community where anybody can connect with anybody. He probably started with something along these lines: “I want to create a place where people can freely communicate.”

When Kevin Systrom was studying at Stanford, he realized that he had a passion for photography and visual effects as well a knack for computer systems. The idea for a social tool spun in his head, and through test runs with other ideas, he married photography with the social concept of connectedness and sold the offspring – Instagram – for $1 billion.

Instagram, as we know it now, is a product that literally enhances everyday-life, but it grew from a simple motive: Connect people through photos.

The mere idea of creating the next ubiquitous mobile product can seem almost too momentous to even begin – a fear that prevents most from doing just that – but it doesn’t have to be. A simple idea and the fearlessness to try it – and the confidence to move to the next idea if it doesn’t catch – are enough.

I think this type of reimagining will seep into the content world, too, because new tools will alter how content is consumed and experienced, which inevitably will force an adjustment in the content itself.

Summly will be an interesting test case of this theory, as some content producers are already expressing the fear that D’Aloisio’s creation will detract from their business by keeping readers from going to the original site to consume the full story. D’Aloisio has spun that argument in his direction, saying that Summly actually incentivizes people to read full stories by giving them an initial snapshot of the piece. He also argues that the future is a partnership between content providers and mobile mailmen that deliver that content, as he quickly points out that Summly relies on journalists in the field producing the original content.

I agree completely with D’Aloisio’s second point; I’m not sure I entirely agree with the first, that by summarizing a story you are actually doing a favor for the original content. I don’t think we’ll see a widespread negative effect on content, but I do think we’ll see one on a micro level, depending on the content genre.

Summly can summarize a profile Kobe Bryant, and if you’re a fan of Bryant or the Lakers or quality writing, you will seek out the piece of content in its entirety.

But what about pure information? What about stocks? What about fantasy sports? What about tech blogs that track movements in the industry? As a reader, you are interested in only the singular piece of information – essentially, content that can be consumed in just a few sentences (within the scope of a product like Summly). When that is packaged and delivered to you in line at Starbucks, there is no incentive to click further. Does Summly, and other social tools that relay information, hurt those businesses?

I think it could, but I also am not sure this is bad. It means we have to make adjustments – we have to improve.

And improvement shouldn’t be daunting. It should begin where 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio did: with a simple idea.

Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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