App consolidation

When Hurricane Sandy forced Google to cancel its big event to show off its new Nexus smartphone and tablets, it blew away a chance for the company to build hype for an influential new product, one that is designed to change the mobile experience by reducing our reliance on apps.

Enter Google Now, a predictive personalized service that delivers you information based on your location, interests, habits, search history, and the time of day. It’s not an app but it performs the function of many, all while idling on the Android operating system, waiting to be booted into action with just the swipe of a finger. It’s just a few months old, but early reviews have been laudatory. Popular Science has named it Innovation of the Year,” putting it in the company of the Atari, the iPhone, and the Tesla S. With Google Now, there’s no need for the hunting and pecking, no need for folder dives, no reversion to search to dig up that obscure app you just know is on your device somewhere.

In essence, Google Now has bundled a bunch of appealing apps for local weather, sports results, travel information, calendar events, news, Wikipedia content, language translations, currency conversions, restaurant reviews, and movie times and tickets into one GPS-fueled application – without the need to download, update, search for, or open any other app. I’d worry if I were a developer working on an app in any one of those verticals, and that, by the way, means a lot of people: TripItYelpFoursquareNessFandangoTripAdvisorSayHi TranslateWeatherLive, and Fantastical, to name a few.

I think there is a strong need for this app culling. There are are more than 1 million apps in Apple’s App Store and 700,000 for Android. The average iPhone user has 41 apps while Android has 32. I’ve got more than 80, and I edit to maintain an “uncluttered” experience. With this many apps, our mobile experience often ends up fragmented, finicky, and difficult to keep up-to-date. Meanwhile, it’s easy to forget which apps you have, let alone find the right ones when you need them.

Numerous pleas for a solution to app overload have centered on building a more powerful search mechanism, improved discovery apps, or Siri-like voice controls. But search asks you to do more work to retrieve something that should be saving you time in the first place. Having apps that let you find other apps is like building a road to another road. It’s a “solution” that has the potential to become worse than the initial problem. Siri is still stuck in the novelty phase, and, surprisingly for Apple, it’s not intuitive to the experience of using an iPhone. Despite what Zooey Deschanel says, I forget that it even exists.

In fact, the solution to app overload isn’t on the iPhone. Apple has effectively trapped itself in its own operating system, and while the iPhone’s easy-to-grok grid-like app layout still may provide a better user experience, it doesn’t invite flexibility. The notifications screen is a list of bullet-point items. To add more functionality, Apple can only add more bullet points, or more app icons, or ask us to instead talk to our devices. But the answer to app overload isn’t more of anything. In fact, it’s less of everything that just happens to also do more of everything.

Google Now is a newcomer to the smartphone user experience but it’s like the 6’10” 22-year-old your rival high school drafted onto its basketball team. It draws on Google’s immense data trove, its search tools, its predictive engines, its machine learning prowess, and its well-established verticals – Maps, Places, Finance, Translate, Trends, and probably several others – to make other apps totally secondary, if not totally obsolete.

In time, Google Now will kill off a lot of default apps that have shipped with smartphones, such as stock charts, the compass, reminder notes, calculators, clocks, and calendars. Both Siri and the soon-to-launch Grokr are trying do the same for the iPhone, but they now have to play catch-up against the world’s largest database. Even though it is just a few months old, Google Now has already set the standard.

Google Now is the result of a convergence of powerful computing innovations that are starting to realize their potential. First, there’s the smartphone itself, a powerful computer that fits in your pocket. Today’s smartphones have about the same processing power as a laptop from 2002.

Then there’s machine learning, which makes these very personal computers smarter the more you use them. It’s also so much more useful on a device that travels with you, and which you put into action 150 times a day. Your smartphone already knows you better than your mom does. Add to that the ability to instantly analyze and make sense of vast volumes of data – yes, Big Data – which turns the world’s collective knowledge into the planet’s most kick-ass library. And finally, there’s the cloud, a vast repository of server space that stores the algorithmic minutiae of your daily existence and allows companies like Google to synchronize it across devices and platforms.

The killer combo of super-powered hardware, machine learning, Big Data, and the cloud should not be trapped within an app that sits behind a rounded-rectangle icon on your homescreen. And it shouldn’t only be something only activated by a voice command. It ought to be the underlying framework for everything you do with a mobile computer. That fact will become only more obvious when we start wearing our computers instead of keeping them in our pockets.

And that is what Google has figured out. Google Now is not an add-on or an augmentation of our existing computing framework. It is the new default computing framework. It won’t make all apps obsolete, but it will reduce our reliance on them, which is good news for sufferers of the “app overload” affliction. Our smartphone screens are about to become less cluttered. On the flipside, however, it will potentially give Google even more power at the expense of smaller innovators and startups. Ironically, Android, the platform that offers users more choice, could well become an engine of consolidation.

Like it or not, this set of circumstances is the new mobile reality. It’s time to retire the phrase “There’s an app for that.” In a Google Now-inspired paradigm of fewer apps, the new mantra will be: “My phone will tell me that.”

[Art by Hallie Bateman]