The Summly Lesson
|by Maxim Blin|
File under: Fake Tech26 Mar 2013 9:32 EDT
If you are a young person, you are probably burdened with student debt, living with your parents, uninsured, and having trouble finding a decent job. But don't worry: there's still a chance that you'll hit the big time, just like Nick D'Aloisio.
Nick is a 17-year old British programmer who just sold an iPhone app he developed, called Summly, to California-based Yahoo! Inc for about $30 million. The media have pounced on this story, praising the 'positive' event, and presenting Nick as a role-model.
Top-rated comments on a BBC article seem to reflect the journalists' attitude:
No possibility of a downside to this story seems to exist. Business Insider, despite its usual cheerleading, reluctantly mentions that "the app generated no revenue" and it "only had 500,000 downloads, which is not much for an app." Those are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Some very obvious and major downsides do exist, if you bother to dig below the surface. In fact, in almost every aspect, this story is a tragedy.
Summly is an app that provides short summaries of news articles for people using small-screened mobile devices. It does this automatically, by using special algorithms and 'artificial intelligence'. Yet any self-aware person who has ever summarized anything will realize the dubiousness of this project. To summarize something, one must first understand it. And an algorithm, even if it is bolstered by 'artificial intelligence', can never understand anything, let alone a news story. All it can do is truncate, drop out words, mix and match sentences. It is not just difficult, but impossible for a program to accurately summarize and reformulate a piece of writing it cannot understand. But it certainly would be cool if it were possible.
We at Fakenation haven't used Summly on our iPhones, so we can't speak from direct experience, but this 'reality problem' is probably the reason why it was a relatively unpopular and unprofitable app.
Summly seems to be just another in the long list of products 'high on concept, low on deliverables.' And this is supported by the fact that the initial investors in the project were fools like Yoko Ono, Mark Pincus (Zynga),and Ashton Kutcher.
And let's look at the company who paid $30 million for this fake product: Yahoo!. Yahoo! is currently on a major downslide, due largely to extremely bad decision-making over the past few years. Shelling out such a huge sum for a product they could have easily produced for a fraction of the cost themselves seems to be another one of those bad decisions. As a commentor on Business Insider writes:
But why would you develop something in-house, and give more money to your own programmers, when you can make your friends Ashton and Yoko happy by giving them a huge return on their hasty investment? If a kid gets $30 million in the process, so much the better -- that'll create some really good media coverage of the deal, which will boost shareholder confidence in the company. Now you're thinking like CEO Marissa Mayer...
This kind of absurd behavior is to be expected from the US business world. The real guilty party here is the media, who still claim some kind of 'journalistic integrity' and 'mandate to keep the citizenry informed.' They pose this event as a simple Cinderella story, and worse: they implicitly encourage other young people to believe that this 'wonderful' event could happen to them. Even though it is probably less likely to happen than winning the lottery, don't give up hope. Live the fantasy, like we do.
And while Nick is presented as some kind of 'lucky beneficiary,' nothing could be further from the truth. This event doesn't mark the beginning of his career, but the end. This payoff basically nullifies any future competitive threat Nick may have posed to Yahoo! and removes him from the market. The chances are very slim that he will ever develop a product like this again, especially since the financial incentive has been so reduced. The most likely scenario for him in the future: he becomes another tech investor, joins the elite ranks of Ashton and Yoko, and sinks his money into other fake products, mindlessly ruining more promising young people. The victim may soon become a victimizer -- not exactly a happy ending.
But don't worry, there's still a chance you could hit the big time too!
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