Yahoo's new iOS app launched this morning, bringing to the table the results of its $30 million acquisition of news summary app Summly last month. It's basically a full overhaul of Yahoo's flagship app focused on providing news via algorithmic summaries that originated with Summly founder and 17-year-old tech wunderkind Nick D'Aloisio.
Bottom line: The app has a solid design, a barebones interface, and works very much as designed. Its simplicity, however, may limit its attractiveness relative to more established news readers that skillfully weave in social media.
Even worse, Yahoo News is still too full of celebrity and viral trash to become anyone's foremost news hub. (Excepting those who live for celebrity and viral trash, that is.)
Yahoo Finally Catches Up In The Design Race
The app, simply dubbed "Yahoo!," is basic in the extreme. But that simplicity is consistent with Yahoo's new mobile approach, which aims for stripped down functionality that offers users the essentials and nothing but the essentials.
Designed much like its companion apps — Finance, Mail, Messenger, Sportacular, and Weather — the app has just one main screen that constantly updates at the top with new stories. There's also a sidebar that offers you Web search via Yahoo's search engine, which still ranks as the third most trafficked behind Bing and Google, and the ability to set preferences. Which gets a little complicated because it forces you to sign into Yahoo; more on that in a moment.
The remaining two thirds of the sidebar is dedicated to plugging the rest of Yahoo's mobile suite, as well as sharing and rating tools.
From a design standpoint, the simplicity is great. The app couldn't be easier to use, and doesn't require you to log in to use its most important functions. In true Summly fashion, the news summaries are no longer than four sentences and typically feature a full image with the text overlaid. Clicking through takes you to a full-page version of the article.
Some Difficult Tradeoffs
There are a few less-than-happy tradeoffs, though. Switching between story categories remains buried in the sidebar under the "All Stories" tab. That certainly limits the app's versatility for news junkies looking for a quick and easy way to navigate trending tropics. On top of that, Yahoo's comment section, which in the browser can feature thousands of comments on any given story, is inaccessible from the app at the moment.
Similarly, to tell the app which news topics you're most interested in, you not only have to sign into your Yahoo account, then you have to create a Yahoo Profile as well. If you haven't done so before, which happened to be the case for me, the process is easy, but it's all handled in a weird Web client within the app that is terribly slow.
Then, once you're signed in, you have to maneuver to the settings section to access preferences, which are now mysteriously called content preferences and not topic preferences. To make matters worse, clicking that forces you to link your account with Facebook — and that didn’t even work for me until I opened that page in my laptop’s browser. Apparently, any kind of preference over what kind of stories you’re seeing is all routed through this terribly clunky social media integration that you can't even set up within the app itself.
Banking On News Summaries, For Good Or Ill
The core of the app's usefulness lies in how effective Summly's summation algorithm can help users quickly digest Yahoo News stories. It's the main reason Yahoo reported shelled out $30 million for a company that barely had a million users and no monetization model, besides the 18-month contract it nabbed with D'Aloisio.
It's worth noting that by buying Summly, Yahoo was primarily acquiring IP, code and technology from SRI International, a nonprofit research institute that has helped develop technologies in fields as varied as education systems and national defense. SRI purchased equity in Summly after D'Aloisio created the summation algorithm and basically evolved it into a valuable product by providing him "artificial intelligence expertise in machine learning and natural language processing," as Business Insider's Nicholas Carlson reported.
SRI also held equity in Siri Inc. before Apple bought it in 2010. Within Yahoo, Summly is even reportedly known as "Yahoo's Siri."
Gossip And Viral Videos
So it's easy to see how Yahoo is banking on summation technology as the future of mobile news consumption. But even with the smartest, leanest "organic" algorithms in the consumer tech industry, the company still faces a big problem: The sour reputation of Yahoo News, which covers as much celebrity gossip and viral Internet videos as it does hard news of substance.
Granted, Yahoo News generates enormous traffic, and a story on a subject of national interest, like the Boston bomber being charged, can generate more than 4,700 comments in a matter of hours. But right next to that in Yahoo's homepage pinwheel — and by extension below or above it in its new mobile app — is a story on Jennifer Lawrence's haircut or a piece titled "Surprise under woman's car."
That's some truly broad coverage, which doesn't necessarily bode well for users who might otherwise be interested in making Yahoo their one stop shop for news. That's especially the case on mobile, where huge news reading players like Flipboard, Pulse, and Zite have built intensive environments with social media integration and large numbers of curated categories.
If Yahoo can leverage the effectiveness of the Summly algorithm to build a base around quick-and-easy mobile reading and flesh the app out a bit more to let users avoid all the trash, this mobile overhaul could be a huge win. For now, while it looks and reads great, it doesn't come close to besting the competition even with its news summaries.