The Summly Lesson

by Maxim Blin
File under: Fake Tech 26 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:

Hopefully this story could be used to illustrate to kids that maths and programming in school can actually lead to a good living and decent payback. Well done.

And another:

Well done! Wished that the press focused more on teenagers like him. A real role model for his peers.

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:

Are you meaning to tell me that Yahoo! couldn't recreate this in house for 1/10th the cost? Let's see - 20 rock-star programmers at $200,000 per year working non-stop for 6 months = $2,000,000. Graciously add another $1,000,000 for overhead and patent / IP work. Done and done.

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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COMMENTS

LILLYBOWMAN34 says:29 Jul 2013 22:42 EDT
I had a desire to start my company, however I did not earn enough amount of cash to do that. Thank God my close friend advised to use the <a href="http://goodfinance-blog.com/topics/credit-loans">credit loans</a>. Thence I received the auto loan and made real my old dream.
Anonymous says:31 May 2013 23:42 EDT
the fact that wealth inequality causes jealousy does not invalidate criticisms of wealth inequality. this meme makes about as much sense as 'u mad bro?' - reacting with negative emotions is a completely rational response in many cases. In fact, disproportionate, lottery-like rewards of effort are a very poor system to provide incentive for innovation and hard work among young people precisely BECAUSE they are predisposed to find it discouraging. But then I forgot, the hustler economy is sacred - it's the human beings who are unworthy of its splendor nowadays.
George says:13 Apr 2013 23:30 EDT
Honestly, everything about this "event" is insane. It's like something you would see on a tabloid cover... Or Yahoo! News. "17-year-old tricks lame duck search engine company into buying pointless app for $30m." Ok, Enquirer, tell me more about this week's Jesus look alike and how pregnant Lindsay Lohan is. $30m in the right hands could do an incredible amount of good, but instead, the media glorifies this prime example of everything that is wrong with the US. Our country has the 4th worst poverty gap in the world (UK isn't doing much better at no. 7) because of shit like this. And don't dare propose that people upset about this are just jealous. If you're not upset about the way wealth is distributed in this country, you clearly don't know the truth about just how bad it is. I'm not jealous of the 1% in the least. I just think it is a moral travesty for so few to have so much while so many of their countrymen suffer. Anyone who thinks they need, let along deserve that much money is a pestulence to the human race.
Nice article. Someone has to say what the mainstream media won't.
MC says:13 Apr 2013 14:08 EDT
"We at Fakenation haven't used Summly on our iPhones, so we can't speak from direct experience, but.....we're a bunch of bloviating imbeciles anyway, so we'll go right ahead and gas on."
MC says:13 Apr 2013 14:07 EDT
"We at Fakenation haven't used Summly on our iPhones, so we can't speak from direct experience, but.....we're a bunch of bloviating imbeciles anyway, so we'll go right ahead and gas on."
Kilgore says:10 Apr 2013 14:20 EDT
I had been thinking all this when I read the story somewhere else. That kid is now burdened by success in the worst way for a teenager: lots of money for slight effort. If he doesn't burn through it before he hits 30 and tries to keep his head on straight, maybe he'll be just fine and actually benefit from it somehow. Other than financially anyway.

As to something like Summly, Wired wrote an article on this other site, Wavii. I think they're in a much better position to accomplish what that kid was trying to do by himself. http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/04/wavii/
Kevin says:27 Mar 2013 16:25 EDT
Interesting, though I wouldn't exactly call what happened to him a tragedy.

Sure he may never invent another app like this again and sure he is now removed from the market space since Yahoo! Essentially bought out their only competitor in this space, but who says this fella wanted to competed in the first place? Suppose his initial plan was to make this app, get a lot of users then find a way to monetize. It turned out quite differently (for the better) - he got $30 mil with a pittance of users. Monetization worries? Over. Life's worries (except for certain and unexpected death)? A thing of the past.

This writer seems very jaded and a tad jealous. If this is what counts as a tragedy these days, then give me that $30 mil and let me sob all the way to the bank.
Done.
Anonymous says:26 Mar 2013 16:02 EDT
We at Fakenation haven't used Summly on our iPhones, so we can't speak from direct experience, but..........
Heero says:26 Mar 2013 14:06 EDT
You read my mind. I've played with a few open source natural language processors and the task of summarizing is extremely difficult. One would also have to wonder about localization. Is his app limited to English speaking countries? Journalism written in English isn't really standardized from country to country so now we're really talking about scalability issues and what about the rate of new words, terms and concepts that are instantly assimilated into our culture but may not have a concrete meaning. The list goes on...I fail to see how this app could possible account for any of those ground breaking solutions. I also don't understand the price tag. The goal of this purchase has to primarily news media buzz for Yahoo and Marissa.
Kris says:26 Mar 2013 13:32 EDT
I had tried Summly when it was first hyped. Deleted it within minutes. Klunky! Feedly will do fine, thanks.
Anonymous says:26 Mar 2013 10:46 EDT
Yes well, the media is clearly in bed with the corporate interests in this case. Shouldn't surprise anyone...
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