Nick D'Aloisio is on sabbatical from his London school, where he is yet to take his A-levels. Last Sunday, just before the onset of Hurricane Sandy, he boarded a last plane out of New York's JFK airport to return to England in time for the global launch of his revolutionary iPhone app today, his 17th birthday.
Just as well he made it. Among those anticipating the debut of the Summly app are D'Aloisio's famous backers Rupert Murdoch, Yoko Ono, Stephen Fry and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher. D'Aloisi has received expert advice from Apple design guru Jonathan Ive and substantial financial support from the Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing.
Having worked on developing software since he was 12 years old, he has taken his business out of his bedroom in Wimbledon, south London, and moved it into offices in the capital's technology hub of Shoreditch, where Summly employs seven full-time staff, including the highly-experienced Internet executive Bart Swanson as chairman.
“I'm still at school,” said D'Aloisio in an interview with The Independent. “I'm kind of on sabbatical at the moment, working on the Summly stuff since the summer. They [at school] have been extraordinarily supportive. People understand this is a really big opportunity and they want to support me in this process.”
So what is it, this Summly app that has everyone so excited? D'Aloisio and his backers believe it has the potential to transform the way we receive news on mobile phones. In doing so it could help resuscitate the news media by changing attitudes towards the monetary value of written articles.
Summly is based on the belief that news stories and mobile phone screens are currently incompatible. Young people, in particular, are not going to wait for an article to download from its host site and so - if they bother to engage with news at all - they do so by skimming through the cacophony of Twitter, which D'Aloisio maintains is “hard to navigate”.
His idea is to allow users to create their bespoke news app, using a computer-generated algorithm that detects the latest news stories on a chosen issue and distills them into “summaries” of around 400 characters, which fit neatly on an iPhone screen (the larger iPhone5 will receive summaries of 500 characters).
Demonstrating Summly, D'Aloisio selects the subject “Obama” and instantly calls up a host of breaking stories, which he scrolls through by swiping left-right across the screen. Each story is already downloaded and presented with a photograph and the name and logo of the news source. “Imagine having to load up all these webpages, I have just scrolled through 20 summaries.”
Although journalists and traditional print media consumers might not initially like D'Aloisio's idea of morsel-sized stories sub-edited by a computer - “there are no humans involved” - he is adamant that Summly will only encourage more people to read full articles that capture their imagination in the summary and drive them to the host site (by swiping the screen from top to bottom to download).
The “summary”, he argues, is a “new form of content that has never existed” and thus offers all sorts of opportunities - most obviously through micropayments for full articles - for news monetisation that can benefit original publishers and Summly itself. Which is why Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, pioneer of the newspaper website paywall, is so interested.
The teenage British entrepreneur has held several meetings with the media magnate in America. “I'm sure he's got a million things on but he was very enthusiastic with Summly and he is still very much engaged with helping us out. The whole of the News Corp team has been helpful in getting this product to market.”
News Corp, which is preparing to split into publishing and entertainment divisions, is one of Summly's partners, offering “a selection of free stuff from their publications” to encourage users to pay for online access to The Times and Wall Street Journal. But D'Aloisio is adamant that the app will be “publisher agnostic” and is anxious to build on the 250 news sources that Summly will draw from at launch.
The prototype for Summly was an app developed by D'Aloisio called Trimit, which generated 100,000 downloads and caught the attention of Li Ka-shing's private equity investment firm Horizons Ventures. The teenager launched a trial version of Summly at the start of this year and it was chosen by Apple as their app of the week.
Since then, Summly has grown from a schoolboy bedroom operation into a serious business determined to create a product for the mass market. “It will be very good for my demographic where people like immediacy but there's information overload for everyone, adults have the same problem,” says the young founder.
Although D'Aloisio spent a lot of time developing the algorithm himself, before bringing in “some world-class PhD guys” to hone the product, he is not a typical computer nerd. His favourite school subjects are philosophy and history. He is dressed in a smart Ralph Lauren jacket and Bathing Ape trainers. He is also obsessed with design, which is a useful quality in an app entrepreneur.
When Yoko Ono held her Smiles art exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery this summer, D'Aloisio helped out on the digital side. He sends off to Japan for new additions to his large collection of scale model designer chairs. In particular, he is a fan of the Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen, paying a visit to his 1960 skyscraper, the Royal Hotel, during a trip to Copenhagen.
It is the iconic Jacobsen egg chair that D'Aloisio has chosen as Summly's logo and one he hopes will become as familiar as Twitter's little bird. He chose it because the egg chair shares Summly's values of “modernism” and “minimalism”, he explains.
“It's a hard and abstract concept to visualise a summary in a non-technological way. We didn't want to do a newspaper or a magnifying glass or a pair of glasses - that's old school right? I had always liked chair design and I thought we could use an egg chair.”
D'Aloisio, who is the son of a lawyer and an investment banker, has ambitions for broadening Summly's content to offer summaries of science articles, Wikipedia entries and even video when the technology allows. But he is starting with news. “It's a platform that we can scale in because everyone needs news, it's a fundamental thing to mobile.”
He speaks rapid-fire with remarkable self-assurance and the lexicon of Silicon Valley. No wonder Stephen Fry was impressed. The famously early adopter of new technology texts the young entrepreneur as we speak to make a late suggestion about the app.
D'Aloisio says he will go back to school and, eventually, to university because he sees the value of a “balanced education”. Employers would surely take him on in a heartbeat. Except, of course, it looks like it will be D'Aloisio himself who is doing the hiring.
Friends in high places: Nick's backers
The head of the global News Corp empire is anxious to find ways to encourage more people to pay for digital access to his newspaper content.
The Hong Kong based business magnate has invested in Summly through his private equity company Horizons Ventures.
The artist and former Mrs John Lennon is an investor in Summly and used D'Aloisio to work on the digital side of her London art exhibition Smiles.
The leading member of the Twitterati and all-round technology junkie has invested in the venture and taken part in Beta testing of the app.
Another heavy Twitter user who was an early supporter and investor in Summly. D'Aloisi has met with the Hollywood actor in America to discuss improvements to the app.
Not an investor but the Apple design guru has met with D'Aloisi and given useful advice for an app which in the first instance is designed specifically for iPhone.Reuse content