Summly wants to make news summaries cool

Remember Nick D’Aloisio, the Internet wunderkind I met last year in Berlin? Well, he is back with Summly, an iOS (s aapl) (iPhone + iPod Touch) mobile app that takes full news pages and offers them as short and succinct summaries for on-the-go consumption. The app, which is likely to be available at the iTunes app store later today, is well-designed, relatively simple and easy to use. But more on that later.

All Grown Up

When I met him last year, the company he had started while still at school was just him. It was essentially focused on summarizing any kind of web page. Since then the focus has narrowed to news, probably because it is a more manageable market opportunity. Summly has managed to raise about a million dollars in angel funding from a potpourri of investors that range from actor-comedian Stephen Fry to Yoko Ono to your usual bold faced suspects from the technology industry.

Investors, frankly, don’t mean anything unless there is a product and a market opportunity that is validated by target customers. D’Aloisio, who has been riding the crest of a media tidal wave, believes that he is onto something new and unique. Why?  D’Aloisio argues that regular news articles, blog posts and tweets don’t allow us to consume copious amounts of news while on our mobile phones, especially since we only have a few minutes to glance at the screen. Tweets eventually lead to a bigger article or just don’t have context. Blog posts and news articles are mostly too long or are packed with cruft. Hence, he has focused his attention on “summaries.”

The company has grown from Nick (who has taken a leave of absence from school) to seven people in addition to about half a dozen people at SRI who have helped develop the technology platform for the new, improved news-focused app. And the back-end changes are there to see – the application (at least in trials) was fast and was able to serve up information rather quickly.

My Tiny App Review

There is a lot to like about the app: it is simple, initiative, fast, clean and extremely well designed. The app comes with pre-packaged categories such as sports, entertainment, business, politics and technology. These categories are represented by large color blocks. (It reminds me of Windows Phone blocks.) You can add your own key words — say, Apple — and a different color block (green) shows up in the app. I am not a big fan of blocks — they look out of place on the iPhone/iOS, but the are simple to navigate.

Latest stories show up at the top, and the ones that are read simply vanish. Want to save, email, tweet or share on some other social network? No problem — press anywhere on the screen and a flower-shaped menu shows up for you to take the necessary action. It is meant to be used with a single hand, with little more than a handful of gestures to navigate through lots of information.

Interested in the latest company funding news? One of the tech blog posts will be summarized into a few words that fit the phone screen comfortably. Want to know what the presidential candidates are lying about? There is a summary for that. You can read news flowing through Twitter and you can pick your news sources. As you shift locations — move from U.S. to U.K., for example, and the summaries change as well. Every time you open the app, the background image changes — a nifty little touch that makes me feel that I am seeing something new, even though nothing might have really changed.

Like I said, there is a lot to like about this app. However, after using it for a few days, I found some inconsistencies. The summaries were generally accurate, but were often nonsensical enough for me to wince. The sources of information that have been curated by the company are predictable and the summaries are bland.

So what’s the problem?

I have this weird way of identifying blow-out apps and services. It is my personal “addicted to dopamine” metric. Twitter has that weird addictiveness. Facebook used to have it (but now it is one giant sprawl of different kind of data.) Instagram was and remains insanely addictive. Prismatic is a drug for infovores like me. The digital services I find the most attractive are the ones that leave me craving more — so much so that I keep returning multiple times a day in order to get my fix.

Summly isn’t there just yet, because it doesn’t provide that constant craving and gratification. Despite the clean design and simple aesthetics, I don’t feel that I need to return to it multiple times a day. It doesn’t feel immediate enough, despite being fast. Many summaries are late, which makes the app feel a little dated.

I am in the news business and headlines, blog posts, tweets, visual information, long-form articles, data visualization — they are my stock in trade. In fact, I consume more information than even I realize. More than 500 blogs are flowing through my RSS reader. My Twitter desktop is jam-packed with lists. As I said, news is my business.

I should be an ideal candidate for a summary-centric service. Summly is something that makes logical sense to me and I want it to be the magic bullet, but so far it remains on the fourth (of seven) screen of my iPhone. In time, I am sure it will move up. I have complete confidence in D’Aloisio and his ability to re-imagine and reinvent what is clearly a much needed app.