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Summly deal highlights smart phone’s growing impact on information

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, 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 smart phone. 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.

“They’re just making it easier to take readers away,” grumbled veteran newspaper company analyst John Morton. “Even in the digital world, it is taking work away from humans.”

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 smart phones, which are small, perpetually online and rarely far from the restless hands of their owners.

There are more than a billion mobile devices in the world, and almost everywhere they are upending business models. That includes those of the winners of previous rounds of tech disruption, such as Yahoo, that grew strong on the spread of high-speed internet connections to desktop and laptop computers, spiking demand for online news, information and other popular content.

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. 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. (Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham is a member of Facebook’s board.)

All 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 may not linger long 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 hanging on the bottom of the 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 smart phone 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, smart phone-friendly news will be tapping an important market. Already about one-third of the traffic to U.S.-based news sites comes from mobile devices, up from a quarter a year ago. Over the next few years, it is expected to push past half, said Doctor.

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