Many last 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, into a pithy 400 characters.
But for some of those who prefer heartier servings of news, the development carried at least a whiff of the apocalypse.
For perspective: On Summly, the app that Yahoo! bought from 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio for $30 million, this article would already be done, having ended midway through the word “D’Aloisio.”
His fortune-making insight was that people on the go — in line for coffee or killing time between innings of a baseball game — may want no more information than can fit on the screen of a typical smartphone.
This service is made possible not by underpaid 20-somethings, as was typical for earlier generations of news aggregators, but by an algorithm designed to cull the essence of reports from traditional news sources.
But having computers reduce news to handy digests is not, by itself, a revolution.
Yahoo itself has long sent automated news reports on fantasy football game results to team owners. Rather, the rise of Summly highlights how much the future of news and information is being shaped around the peculiar features of smartphones, which are small, perpetually online and rarely far from the restless hands of their owners.
Yahoo’s new chief executive Marissa Mayer bought Summly to aid her drive to make the company better positioned for the shift toward mobile devices.
The traditional way to make money is through advertisements, but drawing attention to a tiny ad hanging on the bottom of the smartphone screen is even more difficult, especially when compared to the opportunity offered by the luxury of space on a Web page accessed from a desktop computer.
That has led, for example, to Facebook allowing advertising messages that specifically target the News Feeds of its mobile users, while Google in recent years 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.