The iPhone Gets an Answer to Google Now

Siri gets some competition from an app that offers answers to search queries you haven’t even made yet.

It’s not always easy to find the information you want on a pocket-sized device.

This summer, Google revealed a novel response to the challenges of finding information using a small, mobile screen: Google Now, an app that tries to anticipate your needs and offer information such as transit schedules precisely when you need them (see “Google’s Answer to Siri Thinks Ahead”). Now a startup company called Grokr is making a similar experience much more widely available with an app for the iPhone.

Offered up: Grokr displays data such as local traffic conditions when such information is likely to be needed.

If Google Now was a test of the idea of using sensors and other data sources to predict what information a person wants at a particular moment, Grokr could amount to an even bigger experiment. Google Now is so far available only to the small fraction of Android users with the latest version of the operating system, while Grokr can be installed by any iPhone user. (The app is pending Apple’s approval, but Grokr expects it to be available this week).

“On mobile, search should tell me things that I want to know before I ask them,” says Srivats Sampath, CEO and founder of Grokr, who was previously CEO of the antivirus company McAfee. Sampath’s company has worked on the problem for about three years, and has received $4.2 million in venture capital funding.

Like Google Now, Grokr runs in the background on people’s phones. When opened, the app presents virtual cards showing information it believes would be useful at that moment—like giving a commuter updates on nearby traffic conditions. Like Google Now, Grokr uses location data from a user’s phone to figure out where he lives and works.

Unlike Google Now—but like some other mobile apps (see “App Watches Your Every Move”)—Grokr attempts to log every business or location a person visits. That data is also used to present a “current location” card that also presents shortcuts to search results for local information. In the morning, one of those shortcuts is likely to be “coffee”; later in the day, “lunch” will appear; and later still, “taxi.” Grokr can also grab information from your Facebook profile to come up with reminders of events, sports scores, and movies showing near the places you frequent.

Apple already has Siri as its own solution to the difficulties of finding information on a phone. However, despite being well-designed, this virtual personal assistant does not always meet the high expectations encouraged by Apple’s own ads for it (see “Social Intelligence”). Unsurprisingly, Sampath says the Siri model is flawed, partially because the voice-recognition technology doesn’t always work in noisy places, and partially because “it’s an odd behavior for a human to speak to their phone.”

“The ask-and-answer model has to go,” Sampath says.

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