New technology for smartphones will monitor activity and send information before it is requested; locking in loyal users
Aug. 3, 2015 2:14 p.m. ET
The technology giants, whose software runs nearly all of the world’s smartphones, are adding features to deliver information before users ask for it. Their moves suggest that smartphones will evolve into devices that dispense information unprompted.
The companies are tackling the technology differently, reflecting their own expertise and priorities. Apple’s Proactive Assistant, a feature of its forthcoming iOS 9 software, aims to learn how a user will behave from information stored on an iPhone. By contrast, Google Now combs data from a universe of online services and searches.
“This is a major battleground. The companies are using this to highlight their strengths,” said Rich Mogull, the chief executive of the research and advisory firm Securosis.
Both companies hope the new features, some of which are expected this fall, will keep their users loyal and lock them into related services that make money. For Apple, that means more returning customers for its iPhones. For Google, it means more engaged users for its advertisers.
Apple’s iPhone knows which apps you use, when and for how long. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News
In addition, the ability to anticipate what users want and deliver it at the right moment will be crucial for such future devices as smart watches and connected automobiles.
The efforts by Google and Apple are part of a growing wave of “digital assistants” in the technology industry aimed at providing a helping hand for devices. Microsoft Corp. MSFT -5.67 % is putting “Cortana,” a personal-assistant service, in all devices running Windows software. Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -4.13 % ’s virtual assistant is Alexa, who currently exists inside the company’s Echo speaker.
At its developers’ conference in May, Google demonstrated how Google Now can alert a traveler to airport gas stations when the traveler is returning a vehicle and may need to fill the tank. Google can deduce the return time from emails showing the traveler’s itinerary and real-time departure data provided by airlines.
For other uses, Google Now, introduced in 2012, taps Web search and browsing history, Google services such as Gmail, calendar and YouTube, and data from the phone such as location, time and app use. The company says it wants as much information as possible to produce the most useful recommendations.
“Imagine an assistant who works for you for [only] one hour a day,” says Aparna Chennapragada, director of product and engineering for Google Now. “I want my assistant proactively working for me all the time.”
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Apple takes a more conservative approach, limiting itself to information gathered on the phone. The company says the iPhone knows which apps you use, when you use them and for how long. It also knows where you are and with whom you communicate regularly. It has access to some emails, but it taps them sparingly, Apple says, using them to identify callers or create calendar events, for example.
As a result, Apple can’t replicate some of what Google Now does. Its upcoming iPhone software will have a feature called Siri Spotlight that suggests people to contact based on future
meetings or nearby businesses. It will also find gas stations once you’re near the rental-car office, but it won’t send the information proactively.
So far, Apple has provided one example of when it would seek information beyond the phone: tapping real-time traffic data to suggest when to leave for an upcoming appointment in the phone’s calendar.
Apple’s approach is focused on learning regular activities. If you listen to music in the morning while working out, for example, the phone will begin playing your workout music when you plug in your headphones in the morning. Apple hasn’t elaborated on its plans for Proactive Assistant since its announcement last month.
Apple also distinguishes between what its devices know and what it as a company knows. Apple says its device knows a lot about you, but that information is tethered to the phone and isn’t collected by the company.
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has been critical of companies such as Google that he says are profiting by selling data on users to advertisers.
Google says it doesn’t sell or share user data with other companies but uses its information to target ads.
Jamie Davidson, a partner at Redpoint Ventures and a former Google engineer, says Google’s willingness to tap a broader swath of data gives the company a leg up. “It will be harder for Apple to create a compelling experience without getting more information from the broader Web beyond the phones,” he says.
One app developer who works with Google says the utility of Google Now will vary depending on how much information a user shares. Those who share more will get more relevant suggestions, the developer says. But that benefit must be weighed against the privacy implications of sharing so much personal information with the company.
Dylan Russell, a 23-year-old media-studies student at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla. says he regularly uses Google Now on his Motorola Moto X phone, and he isn’t worried about compromising his privacy.
“I think it’s something that people are going to get over,” Mr. Russell says. “It’s not a bad thing for Google to know me better to help me better.”
On a recent Friday night, Mr. Russell saw that Google Now had displayed information about local restaurants and movies playing in a nearby theater. In another instance, his boss sent him an email reminding him to make a spreadsheet for a project, and Google Now created a reminder for him.
“I thought it was super awesome. I didn’t click any buttons,” says Mr. Russell. “They’re becoming more like a real personal assistant, knowing you, knowing what you like to do, and knowing when you like to do it.”
Later this year, Google plans to introduce Google Now on Tap, which will use text and image recognition to understand what users are doing inside apps and make suggestions. It won’t send information proactively, but it could anticipate the next steps a user may want to take.
For example, when a friend suggests in a text message eating dinner at a specific restaurant, Google Now can bring up an information card with the restaurant’s Yelp reviews, phone number, schedule and a map, as well as a link to a booking app like OpenTable to help secure a table.