nick-d-390x285Yahoo!’s $30 million purchase of the IPhone app Summly, created by 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, has royally pissed off the hacker wing of the tech community, and that’s putting it mildly.

Summly is the now closed down IPhone app that provides a summary of online news for you. It’s very much like the app I found when I went to get Summly on my iPhone: clipped. provides the same summaries, but there’s no information on it (We’ll deal with that, later).

To understand the collective anger of hackers, you have to accept that many programmers who work in the area of creating new code for novel uses dream of being the one who’s creation become a popular device that then brings them a large paycheck. Let’s get that out of the way now: if Summly were merely part of some new AOL-style Yahoo incubator and no large dollar acquisition was involved, no one would be screaming about it. The media coverage of Summly would be a mere fraction of what it is, today, and Nick’s teen age would be the only story hook.

But that’s not the case here because Yahoo threw $30 million at him and two of his five-person team.

What’s got hackers all riled up is the mainstream media’s take that Summly’s an original idea from the perspective of code development and use. In point of fact, it’s not that at all, but Summly does point to another consideration of any tech device that’s really driving this story, and I’ll get to that after we look at the angry hackers.

As Emin Gün Sirer points out in his blog “Hacking Distributed,” the problem for him is the acquihire, Summly is based on an already available core technology. He blogs:

Summly licensed its core technology from SRI, which, previously, spun out Siri and sold it to Apple. Summly had 5 engineers, only 2 of whom will be moving to Yahoo. Summly is reported to have 1M downloads of their app in mobile app stores.

Thus the rise of what Sirer calls “bolt-on engineering” where app developers and programmers take already available code and apply it for their own development purposes. He then derisively writes that such a practice is “glue versus thought,” and says this about Yahoo!:

So, what is Yahoo signaling to the world? “We value glue more than thought.”

The comments trailing Sirer’s blog post at Hacker News are even more incendiary than what he wrote. Here’s a taste:

This is spot on. I’m certain this 17-year-old is incredibly clever, but you could hire an entire think tank of clever people to do nothing but innovative R&D for $30M. Hell, I’d take a significant pay cut if I could transition from coding around bullshit UI quirks to actually solving real problems.

Did you read the article? In paragraph 4 he specifically tells us he takes the founders age off the table.


michaelochurch 1 day ago | link

I know that the OP did take it off the table. I’m not doing so. It’s important, and here’s why.

I’m sure he’s extremely talented. Most 17-year-olds aren’t programming at all. However, this is an HR acquisition (they’re shutting Summly down). What exactly does a 17-year-old have that merits a $30m hiring bonus?

I’m not ragging on him, at all. I think it’s great for him. He had the opportunity and took it. That’s awesome. But… what are Yahoo’s executives thinking?

When DE Shaw hires Putnam Fellows, they start them at $150-200k. Not $30 million. They have to work their way up to that.

I’m not asking this out of resentment, because I don’t care. Yahoo could have acquired him for $500m and I wouldn’t care. I’m asking that out of honest curiosity. If you’re that desperate for talent that you’re hiring 17-year-olds (very good 17-year-olds, no doubt) with a $30m hiring bonus instead of a much more reasonable, I don’t know, $500k, then what did you do so wrong as to get there?

Over at the French tech blog Rude Bagette, Liam Boogar writes that another tech company that produces a device that summarizes what news your find online and is called TL;DR (for “Too long; didn’t read”) is also pissed off, especially since they do what Summly does – or did before it was shut down and moved to Yahoo.

But I think most miss the real point of Yahoo!’s deal. Marissa Mayer’s move was genius: it was about the unique combination of an apparently nice, Harry Potter-like teen who created an app that solved a problem where people have been trying to corral news into a size that could be quickly consumed via a mobile device.

If you think about it, Summly has been doing on mobile, and in a short time, what Google has not done: created an app that feeds Google News content to mobile in a compelling way. In fact, considering that Google News is the gold-standard for news distribution, it’s a real bungle of an error for the company to fail in the move of news to mobile.

Yahoo! Steps in. Plus, the human-element of all of this can’t be overlooked – combine the genius (or “clever” for those who are pissed) Harry Potter-like teen with a pop-culture icon like Stephen Fry, and an app people obviously want that the Harry Potter-like teen created, then pour in $30 million and you’ve got buzz and a climbing stock price (from 22.80 to 23.16 over five days) for a company, Yahoo!, that needs it.

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