I monitor several news sources each day and one of these, The Next Web had a look early Sunday (my time) at a 16-year old developer in the UK who has come up with an app for the iPhone. His work is generating enough interest to attract ventura capital investment.
Apart from a Flash video, there was not much information on how the app worked. I downloaded Summly and ran it a few times during the course of the day.
Summarising is a useful way to make information more easily palatable. We may sometimes be asked to summarise a report, for speedier consumption by management. Sometimes I need to condense information so that it is easier to manage by those I work with: they need to grasp the core ideas rather than be bogged down by less important detail or trivia.
I first learned the basics of writing a précis before I went to high school in the UK, and the core to the task was understanding what the full text was about, then stripping away the unnecessary words and leaving the essence.
The nature of smartphones and the web has condensed the time we have available for intake of information. I know that just reading through the outlines in RSS feeds and other sources can take a fair amount of my time each day. Anything that reduces the time (such as my reliance on RSS) enables us -- students, managers, teachers -- to be able to handle the larger quantities of data that are thrown at us each day. The job becomes harder for anyone who needs to work in a language not their own.
The idea of Summly as I see it, therefore, is as an aid to handling information (not a substitute for the full text) in the same way as an Abstract can help academics grasp the main points of a book-length thesis. The developer also envisions it as a way to reducing articles -- especially those on the web -- to a suitable length for a medium such as Twitter or an SMS message. The default length of a summary is 140 characters. I did not find that the output was accurate enough for me and decided not to use it further.
The Mac too has a summarising feature although these days it is fairly well hidden. Apple actually employs someone to develop the software for this and improve the algorithms to try and make it more accurate. It used to be found in one of the menus of the under-rated Text Edit application, but when I went looking to compare output with Summly, I was unable to find it.
I looked in the Services menu (the Services menu for Safari is shown here) and, while that gave me several extras that worked with Text Edit, Summarizing was not there.
Depending on the application that we are using, the Services menu lists the services available, but may indicate that No Services Apply. The last entry in the menu is a link to Services Preferences. These are in Keyboard Preferences in the Keyboard shortcuts panel: one of those rather interesting parts of OS X that allows a user to add all manner of extra tricks to the ways we may work.
Several groups of shortcuts are listed on the left, for example for Mission Control or Screen Shots. What I wanted was in the Services section. Many of the possible extras here are unchecked by default. Summarize was in a section in the Shortcuts panel to the right in a section marked, Text. By checking the box next to the entry, this was now active in the Services menu.
I wanted to add to the function with a key command, so in the left-hand panel clicked on Application Shortcuts. I had already added a key command for Safari to Reopen All Windows from Last Session, but wanted the Summarize command to apply to all applications.
I clicked on the + icon at the bottom and a panel opened. I wanted this new key command to apply to all applications, so used the button to match this. Using the same button I could have selected a specific application (as I had for the Safari command -- above). I then entered the title for the command, Summarize, in the space available and added a combination of keys for the command. I needed to make sure that the combination was not already being used, although there would be a warning if I selected such a combination. I used Control + Option + S. When I highlight a section of text, and press the key combination a panel appears instantly with a summary that I can adjust for length. It also opens an application on the Mac named Summary Service (which has its own Services menu).
I am not entirely convinced of the overall accuracy of such summaries although some may find this useful. It may be that the human brain has a lot of advantages over software solutions in this area for the time being.