Apple and Google Know What You Want Before You Do.
New technology for smartphones will monitor activity
and send information before it is requested; locking
in loyal users.
Apple and Google are preparing new smartphone apps
that will monitor and predict users’ activity and
supply information before it is requested.
By Daisuke Wakabayashi and Alistair Barr
Aug. 3, 2015 2:14 p.m. ET 69 COMMENTS
Apple Inc. and Google Inc. are racing to anticipate
the needs of their users.
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. ENLARGE
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
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. is putting “Cortana,” a
personal-assistant service, in all devices running
Windows software. Amazon.com Inc. ’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,”
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
“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.
Write to Daisuke Wakabayashi at
***@wsj.com and Alistair Barr at ***@wsj.com