MediaFile

The future of search only cost $30 million

On the surface, Nick D’Aloisio’s story is the kind tech lives for, and sometimes regrets. It’s the tale of a kid selling an obscure startup for an inflated price, and then it becomes as irrelevant as Netscape, and its buyer’s remorse is part of the company’s enduring legacy.

But the story of Summly, a startup whose app appeared in the Apple Store only five months ago and was purchased on Monday by Yahoo for a reported $30 million, isn’t part of this trite arc.

This isn’t a boilerplate tale about a youngster hitting the jackpot, a former Internet giant trying to buy a relevance makeover, or even about an intriguing programmatic way to summarize news. It is about the future of search. 

D’Aloisio’s youth – he’s 17 – and windfall are interesting data points, even if all the work behind the magic algorithm isn’t the sole product of this high schooler’s brain. Like all really good ideas, Summly’s is simple: Anything can be summarized, but by having a computer do it,  the number of things you can summarize — and the speed with which it can be done — are massively increased. As an app, it filtered news stories and — Presto Chango! — spit out the CliffsNotes version, optimized for a smartphone’s tiny screen (and our infinitesimal attention span).

If nothing else, D’Aloisio put together a company with serious backers — the first was when he was 15, and then some eyebrow-raising names like Yoko Ono and Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher followed. These investors were either captivated by this young man or captivated by his idea, despite him.

Mayer can’t save Yahoo – because Yahoo can’t be saved

Yahoo eats CEOs. The perennially ailing company lures talented managers into the corner suite of its Silicon Valley headquarters, then it sucks their good reputations out of their veins and casts them aside. They inevitably pass through the revolving door an empty shell of their former selves.

Terry Semel, Jerry Yang, Carol Bartz, Scott Thompson. All took the CEO helm with visions of invigorating Yahoo into an Internet leader for the 21st century. Most became mired in Yahoo’s stubbornly byzantine culture. And all probably collected their severance checks wishing to themselves they’d never heard of the company with its stupid hillbilly name and its superfluous punctuation mark.*

Now it’s Marissa Mayer’s turn. Mayer – an early Google hire who instrumentally forged its successes in search, maps and online email – has become such a positive, likable presence in Silicon Valley that I actually felt sorry for her when I heard it was her time to be Yahoo’s help. A failed tenure as Yahoo’s CEO couldn’t happen to a better-qualified candidate.