What if you could summarize any news article into just a few sentences so you could more easily get a daily dose of news on the go? Well, you might end up with Circa, which launched in mid October, and converts current events into bulleted lists of important facts. It's simple to flip through news stories in Circa, since they're summarized into quotes, facts, and concise original writing from its editors.
But what if the story summaries weren't written by Circa editors, but were instead written by robots who can recognize the most important couple sentences in any article? Then you've got Summly, launching today on iPhone, for a generation of mobile news consumers even more voracious (and with shorter attention spans) than Circa's. Founded by 17-year-old Nick D'Aloisio, Summly uses a combination of natural language processing and "rocket science" from the famed scientists at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) to pick out only what's important from news articles. D'Aloisio dropped out of school to focus full-time on Summly — for which he has become the youngest person ever to receive VC funding (back when he was 15, and when Summly was in early stages).
On an iPhone 4 or 4S' 3.5-inch screen, that means between 300-400 characters, but on an iPhone 5's 4-inch screen, that could mean a tad more. The point is to summarize what you need to know from an article without making you scroll. "The idea of scrolling is horrific," D'Aloisio says, "and in Circa, they're getting human editors to produce content, but we're not doing that." Instead of scrolling, you navigate through bite-sized article summaries with a sideways swipe like you might in Flipboard's news app on iPhone. Double tapping an article's headline gives you an expanded summary, and a downward swipe loads the entire article. If you want to share a summary, long press on the article itself and a flower of sharing options blooms into view.
But Summly isn't a web news browser. It includes articles from dozens of news publications hand-picked by the company that populate several categories like Business, Art and Design, or Election 2012. The publications that populate each category represent the only curation that takes place in Summly. Each of these categories refreshes every thirty minutes with new content. You can also set up categories for specific keywords like "Obama." These categories refresh every hour, and only include content summaries with that keyword in mind. Within each category, you can select which sources you do or don't want to see articles from.
Perhaps the app's true audience is youngsters looking for Cliffs Notes for news articles
Om Malik writes, "[its] summaries were generally accurate, but were often nonsensical enough for me to wince." Malik's right: the app's summaries are intelligible sentences, but since they're extracted from articles without providing any other context besides headlines, they often sound disjointed and non-conclusive. Circa may not be as chock full of artificial intelligence and natural language processing, but it provides "summaries" that are much easier to digest. Or maybe I'm just too old to get it. Perhaps the app's true audience is youngsters like D'Aloisio who aren't looking to skim, but who are instead looking for Cliffs Notes for news articles. And to that extent Summly works, providing very quick snippets summarizing an article. "The alternative is Twitter, short and sensationalist headlines," D'Aloisio says, "but with Summly, you get the headline experience but you still get enough content that you might be satisfied doing that." The feat is a technological miracle, but it might just not be all that useful for most people.