Getting Your Phone to Give You a Hand

A growing number of apps hope to turn smartphones into personal assistants.

Ever since last fall, when Apple introduced its genial voice-controlled personal assistant, Siri, on the iPhone 4S, there’s been a flurry of activity as other apps attempt to go beyond its limitations. Challengers include Evi (see “New Virtual Helper Challenges Siri”), which mimics some of Siri’s abilities for smartphones running Google’s Android software; Cue, an iPhone app that attempts to intelligently organize your day (see “A Personal Assistant Mines Your Life to Help Out”); and Google’s own Google Now Android software (see “Google Would Like to Sell You a Tablet”).

Aside from Siri, the player with the most potential for snagging users at the moment is Google Now, which anticipates traffic and weather information you might need and displays it as a series of on-screen “cards.” Google Now also accepts spoken requests through Google’s Voice Search—you can say “Google” to get it to start listening, and if you ask a question it responds in a humanlike voice. The service’s spread is hampered by limited availability, though: so far it runs only on the few devices that have the Jelly Bean version of Android.

Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android, says Google has long wanted to build a product that can predict what you’ll want instead of waiting for you to ask for it. Google Now achieves this by taking a look at your current context (such as your location), along with your contacts and past behavior, to make smarter searches. If you’re logged in to Google’s services on another computer, it can also use your actions there to predict what you might want on your smartphone. “It’s about taking technology out of the way,” Barra says.

Kevin Cheng, a former project manager at Twitter and cofounder of the stealth personal-assistant software Donna, is attempting to do something similar. Though he won’t get into many specifics about what Donna’s capabilities will be at launch, he says she (yes, he refers to the software as “she”) will help you stay organized and punctual by, for example, letting you know when you should leave to get to a meeting on time—a judgment made by analyzing traffic conditions, weather, and public transportation schedules. He expects Donna to be available this fall.

“If you think about a really great assistant, you don’t have to ask that person for things,” says Cheng. “They just have done it and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s exactly what I needed, and I didn’t even realize it.’ That’s how we’re approaching Donna.”

One startup, Happiness Engines, lets users choose among five different robots (options include Robbie, who will “couch every message in an infectious can-do attitude,” and Haley, who is “quick, witty, and with a touch of friendly sarcasm”).

Happiness Engines’ iPhone app currently includes a single meeting confirmation feature, which connects to your Gmail account and works via e-mail. Founder Yan-David Erlich won’t say more about what’s coming, but he plans for the app to sort through the personal data generated with cell phones to, for example, remind you that you haven’t been to the dentist in a while.

“I think what matters for different categories of people is different, but largely the problem is the same: you’ve got a large haystack of personal data that you generated yourself, and nobody is helping you with it,” Erlich says.

Startups will also have to figure out how they can offer something unique that Siri and Google Now can’t, since for a growing number of consumers, those two services are just a click or swipe away. Wardrip-Fruin thinks we’ll see more predictive features, in part because humans are getting a lot better at paying attention to patterns in data—how we play video games, edit Wikipedia, move through a city—and making assumptions based on them.

For example, every time you attend your child’s soccer game, your phone-based personal assistant might notice that it takes you more time than you allot on your schedule. Eventually, if you try to schedule a meeting right after the game, it could ask you if you really think the time frame is realistic.

“At some point we’ll turn that corner, and instead of feeling like we’re putting up with something, it will feel like an engaging, meaningful, playful experience,” Wardrip-Fruin says.

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