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Summly deal highlights smartphone's impact

Craig Timberg (via SMH) | April 1, 2013
Many this week celebrated the latest tech wunderkind, a British teenager who made a fortune selling an app that boils down news reports, no matter how important or complex, to a pithy 400 characters.

Her former employer, Google, is wrestling with similar issues, albeit in different ways. So is her former Google colleague, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook.

These companies are looking for ways to profit from the short, intermittent attention spans of mobile users, who may search for movie trivia at a dinner party yet not linger enough to read a profile of an obscure actor. The traditional way to make money is through advertisements but drawing attention to a tiny ad at the bottom of the screen is even more difficult, especially when compared with the the luxury of space on a web page accessed from a desktop computer.

That has led Facebook to allow advertising messages that specifically target the news feeds of its mobile users. And, in recent years, Google has built the world's most popular mobile operating system, Android. It guarantees that its highly profitable search business, which is supported by paid ad links, will always have a place on smartphone screens, no matter how small.

The push to aggregate news and information into bite-sized chunks dates back more than a decade, and only appears to be accelerating with the shift to mobile.

About the same time that Summly launched in November, an app called Circa did roughly the same thing using human editors.

"It is not earth shaking in and of itself," said Ken Doctor, an industry analyst for Outsell. "This has been a steady trend for 20 years."

Yet whoever wins the fight for fast, efficient, smartphone-friendly news will be tapping an important market. Already about one-third of the traffic to US news sites comes from mobile devices, up from a quarter a year ago. During the next few years, it was expected to push past half, said Doctor.

D'Aloisio shrewdly called Summly's algorithm "genetic", meaning its results sounded like something a human would generate. He has also expressed disdain for scrolling down a smartphone screen, which readers of full-sized articles must do repeatedly to reach the end.

Some analysts fear that for traditional news organisations, having already lost billions of dollars to Silicon Valley during the past decade, the new technology could further undermine their efforts to keep readers.

But others say the surging popularity of mobile devices offers the possibility of a new beginning.

Summly - or other apps drawing on Summly's insights about the attention spans of smartphone users - may be part of that, as a first stop in news consumption, rather than a last one.

"It could be that something like Summly is an appetiser that makes you want more," said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, a think tank. "Are these new technologies a threat or a doorway?"

 

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