What does Yahoo want with Summly?

It has barely been available for one month, but mobile news aggregator Summly has clearly impressed Marissa Mayer.

AllThingsD reported that the Yahoo CEO is doing due diligence to acquire the app created by 17-year-old London developer Nick D’Aloisio — and we understand the report is correct. The new Yahoo CEO is personally pushing for the deal, but the deal is nowhere close to being wrapped up. The word in Silicon Valley is that one of Summly’s backer’s, actor Ashton Kutcher, is talking up the company. The long stable of angel investors has helped hype up the app, and it is those connections that have helped it land on Apple’s “top apps of the year” list.

Such a deal would cap a remarkable year for the schoolkid. In late October, D’Aloisio launched the app, which employs natural language processing algorithms to summarise news stories for mobile consumption, to a chorus of press adulation that chimed right in with the U.K. governments’ current initiatives to kickstart technology entrepreneurship. Already, it is listed amongst Apple’s best apps of 2012.

But what exactly is Yahoo buying — and is this a good idea anyway? The technology of the company was developed by SRI, the technical giant that helped develop the Siri technology as well. The company is pretty thinly staffed. At the same time, we understand D’Aloisio, who had been on sabbatical from his studies, is due to return to school. That could either rule out his ongoing association with the service — or make him one of the few small-business CEOs to be serving earn-out on acquisition while still studying for exams.

While developing Summly in June, D’Aloisio told GigaOM he would like to continue studying toward a degree in philosophy, politics and economics one day: “I still enjoy being among friends and in that school environment, and so, if there’s a compromise where I can be running the company a few days a week and also at school, as long as I can be eligible for university still, I think, I’m more than happy to commit a lot of my time right now.”

What’s the value in Summly anyway? The app brings mobile design thinking to news content in a pleasing, native interface — an idea that has been crying out to be realized. But that execution sometimes feels like it has plenty a way to go. Some story summaries produced by Summly are mangled, robotic in tone.

And many in news media will see Summly as trying to solve a problem that does not exist. All journalism schools teach reporters how to write news stories whose own intros summarise the article adequately. If stories are not written in this way, it is either because news media are themselves falling down, or because creators are consciously trying to present articles more creatively, perhaps in the form of features.

For Yahoo, however, a mobile-first product that does effectively deliver news to users can only be an effective addition, as its CEO looks to turn the company around (again) — this time, with a recognition that the desktop portal world has moved on.

In the week that it relaunched Flickr’s iPhone app, Yahoo looks to be making a quick decision to buy an unfinished product that nevertheless has a lot of potential. If it gets the idea, perhaps it can set its own engineers to work on refining the app, whether D’Aloisio stays aboard or not.