Aug 24th, 2013

google now boarding pass

A shift in paradigm

I quite distinctly remember the first time I really, really wished I had Google Now on my phone. I was in Hyderabad, India for a conference last October, returning to my hometown of New Delhi after spending a few hours with a couple of my oldest friends. The three of us hadn’t spent time together for the past five-six years, and I remember wishing I had some more time to reminisce with them.

Unfortunately, I had to rush to catch my flight. Upon reaching the airport and heading to the check-in counter, I was told that I would have to wait an three hours due to some weather concerns. I’ve been there quite often, but for the first time ever, I was angry at myself. Why the hell did you not put that nightly Jelly Bean ROM on your bloody phone!

I could have checked online, of course, but alas, I’m human. An extremely forgetful one, at that. In fact, I don’t think I have ever manually searched for the status of a flight I’m about to board. Since then I have (a) never been too early to an airport nor (b) late to a meeting. And, most importantly, I haven’t changed the way I do anything in particular. Since I rely on Google services so much, Now had all the information it needed to manage my life.

Putting things in context

Tech history is littered with buzzwords, with each and every new startup wanting to associate itself with the latest one, and dissociating itself with the previous. Just like social was all the rage a couple of years ago, alongside coupons and image-sharing, something new has been cropping up. Context.

It makes a lot of sense: most companies (the successful ones, anyway) keep a record of a lot of your data which they had been using to shape their products. Are people not using a particular option? Bury it under an overflow. Is there a particular feature that people seem to be crying out for? Let’s give it to them. Are people not signing up for our service, despite spamming a user’s entire address book? Let’s call ourselves a “private” social network (hi, Path!).

But this was being done at a macro level. Google had already been personalizing user experience at a micro level in a more subtle way: if two people searched for “beetle”, they could get significantly different results. If one person had spent some time searching for cars, and the other for some biology-related topics, the top results would focus on the car and the insect for each respectively. When I just typed “beetle” in the search bar right now, the autosuggest I was getting was “Beetlejuice” a movie, because I had been spending quite some time recently researching films in general.

With Now, they took everything a few levels higher. Bridging various products together, and by leveraging the data they obtained by powering millions of users’ most used computing device, they built something scarily magical. The user feedback was highly positive, as you would expect, and a number of people started imagining various other services that could be personalized in a similar vein.

facebook-home-stingerThis is my home

I continue to believe that Facebook were on to something very powerful with the much reviled Home. The tech bloggers, in their shortsightedness, expected Facebook to fork Android and to launch a new phone. Facebook knew that was never going to work, that forking Android might seem easy but managing an operating system would require a lot of engineering resources. They also knew, however, that simply being an app that a person can install wasn’t enough for a company of their ambitions.

Their big mistake, in my opinion, is that they changed way too much of the Android experience, and that started by focusing on the wrong screen. Mathematically, the lockscreen might get the most number of views. Unlocking a device is also something that a person quickly becomes trained to do, and does it often without even a glance at the screen. It is the screen after that which is important, which controls the gateway to a user’s interaction with the device. The homescreen.

Over the past couple of months, I have been tracking two companies who believe there is a lot of innovation possible in the domain of custom launchers. One is, who I reviewed as part of my Uniquely Android series. The other is Aviate, who I finally got invited to use this past week. Both take significantly different routes to a common destination: giving what’s important more visibility on your homescreen.

Reinventing the wheel

On paper, the idea seems like a sure-shot success. In practice, however, they are anything but. The biggest problem I have been facing while using Aviate has been just how different it is as compared to the default Android launcher. Aviate offers three screens, the first a customizable homescreen where you can put a few widgets, five shortcuts and also see information with a click based on context: when it’s based on time, you typically see weather information. At your work place (which it tries to guess on its own, though not very successfully) you can see calendar information and shortcuts to productivity apps like GMail, Drive, Dropbox, etc.

The second screen offers various collections of apps on your device, such as work, social, games, etc, with 5 shown by default and each category can be expanded. The last is an alphabetically sorted app drawer which, thanks to its fast scrolling and design, is what I like the most about the entire experience.

The problem with Aviate, for me at least, that I feel like I’m giving up a lot. I’m already giving up the gestures I had set on Nova Launcher’s homescreen. I’m also being limited to fewer widgets of smaller space. I would probably be OK with that if the widgets changed on the homescreen’s context, too, so that I would see Any.Do and calendar at work, Play Music and Google Now at home, and other possible combinations.

This is where wins for me, since it offers, at a basic level at least, a clean default Android launcher experience, with a few changes highlighted in the full review I mentioned before. But even requires me to give up the Nova experience I’ve come to learn and love. It makes me wish the Smart Folders and the search bar to simply be widgets that could be placed on any launcher, allowing everyone to use their core features without having to give up on their preferred launcher.

The future

Aviate is in Alpha, and in Beta, which means both these companies have a long way to go before they finally offer the experience that they envision. While I’m excited, I do have a concern: are most people just far too used to the default Android launchers for there to be a serious market for such products? The key for Google Now was that you didn’t change the way you did anything, Google just knew.

By studying our use, they could potentially do a lot of good. What I am most excited by is the possibility of better app recommendations based on tracking what apps I open more often. But does that matter enough to lose some other features? Not for me, not yet at least.

What do you think of context-based launchers? Let us know in the comments.