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ANALYSIS: The 17-year-old who won over Murdoch with a hot news app
[December 12, 2012]

ANALYSIS: The 17-year-old who won over Murdoch with a hot news app

Dec 12, 2012 (London Evening Standard - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Nick D'Aloisio has a good reason for arriving late for this interview. The 17-year-old app developer, who counts Rupert Murdoch's wife Wendi, Stephen Fry and Yoko Ono as investors, had to see his headmaster, to give an update on how his business has been doing, after taking leave of absence from King's College School in Wimbledon in the summer.

D'Aloisio is the founder of Summly, the app that summarises news stories in just two or three sentences. While news organisations struggle to make mobile work -- Rupert Murdoch has just closed his iPad paper The Daily -- Summly has had a remarkable start since launching on November 1.

Half a million people have downloaded the free iPhone app and they have read 30 million summaries, or "Summlys," helping it to reach the top of the Apple app store in dozens of countries, including Britain. Now he is planning an app for Android phones, versions in four other languages, and a Summly version of Wikipedia.

D'Aloisio believes Summly suits the mobile age when we want quick, concise news. He has created a computer algorithm that picks the best stories from across the web, summarises them automatically, and then displays them by category. "From start to finish, there's no human interaction," he says proudly, although news feeds can be personalised by subject matter. Each Summly fits neatly on the phone's screen in under 400 characters -- he likens it to a series of playing cards.

Some users may want to read more, in which case the app lets you see the full version from the website of the news source -- mainly trusted news organisations. "Not one publisher has said, 'get our stuff off your app.'" The user swipes to switch between stories, rather than clicking, on the touchscreen. "We wanted to make sure the user interface was beautiful." D'Aloisio is "not a news junkie." Before Summly, he got news mainly from Twitter and tech blogs. He hardly bothered with TV or a newspaper.

He felt the established ways of ordering information on the web had become out-dated, 15 years after the rise of desktop computers. Google, Yahoo, Bing, Facebook and even Twitter are stuck in a mindset where the user clicks on a weblink or URL and has to go on another page for more information.

"They are companies that are showing URLs and not a lot of content. There is so much long-form content and Summly is trying to make sense of that with an algorithm that aids you. I envisage a mobile search engine and you just get summaries. A summary is a form of content." He adds: "No-one's cracked mobile yet." Apps such as The Daily have gone wrong by trying to create their own news stories in a mobile format. "It doesn't work because you're competing with established news organisations that have been around for 100 years." As he talks fluently in his small office with five staff, based near Old Street roundabout in east London, it's hard to believe he is 17.

D'Aloisio doesn't sound nerdy despite lapses into jargon. His banker father and lawyer mother are Australian "ex-pats" with no background in technology.

He was born in London but lived in Oz until the age of seven. He learnt computer code at 12 and began making apps early, in 2008. The turning-point came in July 2011 when Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing's investment firm, Horizon Ventures, spotted one of D'Aloisio's earlier apps. After an initial call, Horizon suggested meeting and D'Aloisio replied it had to be "before or after school". The company hadn't known his age.

Horizon provided not only investment but also contacts such as Osborne & Partners, a London PR agency. This opened doors for D'Aloisio but "a lot of people latched onto the concept -- I didn't need to persuade them." Stephen Fry got in touch through Twitter. Rupert Murdoch, whom he's met several times, is "pretty chilled -- he wasn't intimidating". Sir Jonathan Ive and Apple have provided advice on design. Troy Carter, Lady Gaga's manager, and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher are investors. D'Aloisio also knows Yahoo boss Marisa Meyer and has met Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.

Is there anyone he hasn't met "Obama," he replies, grinning.

D'Aloisio has surrounded himself with older, experienced people such as Bart Swanson, Summly's chairman. "I don't have a co-founder. I'd be an idiot if I didn't try to get people to help me." Summly has raised about $1.5 million (pounds sterling 900,000) and signed an agreement with Murdoch's News Corporation, with plans to make The Times available, despite its internet pay wall.

D'Aloisio talks in dollars because he sees Silicon Valley as key. California's Stanford Research Institute helped to develop his algorithm, using "natural language processing" to make sense of words in a news story. The university has a stake in Summly, which was a UK company but has now been incorporated in the US state of Delaware.

He still wants the main office to be in London and hopes to study philosophy at Oxford University. But despite the Government's efforts to promote the area around Old Street as "Tech City", he says "it does feel different in the Valley" as there's more energy and it is easy to bump into the right people.

Being in London still has advantages. "There hasn't been a person as young as me to come out of the Valley -- the youngest people are not coming out of the Valley, they're coming out of Europe and Israel," he claims, comparing himself to the teenage Russian founder of video website ChatRoulette.

D'Aloisio's rise has been aided by some slick PR -- Summly uses at least two agencies. He has been dubbed "the next Mark Zuckerberg" and this week won a Spirit of London award, set up by the Damilola Taylor Trust, to recognise young Londoners.

For now, Summly makes no money and the focus is on winning more users. A subscription model and advertising are both options for the future.

He owns a majority stake. "A lot of the investors who have approached us see this as turning into a $1 billion company. I'm not so sure. It could go very big or it could not. Whether it could turn into a company that goes public is another matter." Yes, this schoolboy has, unprompted, mentioned a stock market float.

___ (c)2012 London Evening Standard Visit the London Evening Standard at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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