Software Review: Summly

Posted by: by John Parsons on March 6th, 2012

Occasionally, I get excited about new technology. (OK. Maybe “all geeked out” is closer to the truth.) Whenever someone figures out a better way for humans and their techno-tools to work together, I rejoice. Then I test drive it and, every once in a while, add it to my own repertoire.

My latest find is Summly, an iPhone app developed by teenage phenom Nick D’Aloisio. It is a novel approach to search, using “ontological[1] learning and machine learning techniques” to automatically produce summaries of Web pages and news stories. It has purportedly garnered serious interest from researchers at MIT. (App Store customer reviews are wildly mixed, as would be expected for something this new.)

The app itself is relatively simple. Entering keyword searches yields a list of headlines and URLs. Clicking any one of these yields a bullet point summary of the page—provided the story itself is more than 500 characters. The summarized Web site also needs to follow certain structuring conventions.[2] These conditions sometimes produce bizarre results, such as long strings of Javascript instead of English, but in general it tends to produce useful information. After skimming it, the user can copy or email the summary, email the URL, or open the actual site, if desired.

Integration with Safari is also provided, allowing users to summarize browsed sites. The Summly API will also be incorporated into other media channels and platforms, according to the company’s very sparse Web site.

My curiosity aroused, I used Summly to find out more about this year’s prospects for the Seattle Mariners. Although a few sites did not yield useful information, many did—and with a fraction of the verbiage from the original sites. (An 855-word article was boiled down to a 112-word summary, for example.) The meaning was clear in most cases, giving enough information to prompt a decision to read the full article—or not.

Although the app has a long way to go, it’s still a milestone in our quest for better content handling tools. By extracting meaningful summaries from mountains of content, such apps may give users the opportunity to reclaim many, many lost hours. They may also force writers and Webmasters to pay more attention to structure, if they want their work to be noticed. Both outcomes are potentially good for all of us.

– John Parsons


[1] Buzzword alert: “Ontology” is a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of being, and an “ontological argument” deals with the existence of God. So, I suspect the Summly marketing wordsmiths have been hard at work here.

[2] Alas, WordPress apparently violates these, so I could not summarize my own blog!

Occasionally, I get excited about new technology. (OK. Maybe “all geeked out” is closer to the truth.) Whenever someone figures out a better way for humans and their techno-tools to work together, I rejoice. Then I test drive it and, every once in a while, add it to my own repertoire.

My latest find is Summly, an iPhone app developed by teenage U.K. phenom Nick D’Aloisio. It is a novel approach to search, using “ontological[1] learning and machine learning techniques” to automatically produce summaries of Web pages and news stories. It has purportedly garnered serious interest from researchers at MIT. (App Store customer reviews are wildly mixed, as would be expected for something this new.)

The app itself is relatively simple. Entering keyword searches yields a list of headlines and URLs. Clicking any one of these yields a bullet point summary of the page—provided the story itself is more than 500 characters. The summarized Web site also needs to follow certain structuring conventions.[2] These conditions sometimes produce bizarre results, such as long strings of Javascript instead of English, but in general it tends to produce useful information. After skimming it, the user can copy or email the summary, email the URL, or open the actual site, if desired.

Integration with Safari is also provided, allowing users to summarize browsed sites. The Summly API will also be incorporated into other media channels and platforms, according to the very sparse Web site.

My curiosity aroused, I used Summly to find out more about this year’s prospects for the Seattle Mariners. Although a few sites did not yield useful information, many did—and with a fraction of the verbiage from the original sites. (An 855-word article was boiled down to a 112-word summary, for example.) The meaning was clear in most cases, giving enough to make a decision to read the full article or not.

Although the app has a long way to go, it is still a milestone in our quest for better content handling tools. By extracting meaningful summaries from mountains of content, such apps may give users the opportunity to reclaim lost hours. It may also force writers and Webmasters to pay more attention to structure, if they want their work to be noticed. Both outcomes are potentially good for us.


[1] Buzzword alert: “Ontology” is a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of being, and an “ontological argument” deals with the existence of God. So, I suspect the Summly marketing folks have been hard at work.

[2] Alas, WordPress apparently violates these, so I could not summarize my own blog!


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