A tale of two Sherpas: A personal assistant app hones in its identity

By Richard Nieva , written on April 18, 2013

From The News Desk

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the private beta launch of a personal assistant app called Sherpa, and in it, I made the argument that the relatively nascent market for personal assistant apps is getting crowded. In fact, when I posted my story, we almost ran the wrong picture: the logo from another personal assistant app named Sherpa, which launched a few days before. If that’s not a sign that the category is getting crowded, I don’t know what is.

Today, the Sherpa I originally wrote about has announced its official rebranding, calling itself Osito, and debuts in the Apple App Store. A PR rep for the other Sherpa (are you sufficiently confused yet?) says the company-previously-known-as-Sherpa didn’t realize the name was trademarked in the US before launching, and the other Sherpa wrote a letter to the former Sherpa asking it to change its name. Whew. Exhausting.

It was likely a freak coincidence. Naming issues like this happen all the time in business, so no need to harp on it, although you'd think a startup would check the USPTO trademark database before committing to a name. But it does suggest that the market for these apps is in danger of becoming repetitive. The competition is already formidable: Google Now, Grokr, Tempo, Siri, and of course, the other Sherpa. That app is a service for Android similar to Siri and popular in the Spanish-speaking world. It was developed by natural language expert Xabier Uribe-Etxebarria and came to the US market yesterday. Also yesterday, Amazon was reported to have acquired a company that makes another voice recognition assistant product called Evi.

Each of these apps has the common goal of changing the way you search, either by allowing you to speak your request, or using data and algorithms to proactively give you answers before you even search for them. Each app takes a slightly different approach. For example, Tempo is calendar-based. Grokr does a lot of its data pulling from social networks. Google Now, naturally, has the benefit of a user's Google search history.

The freshly named Osito, which takes its name from a guide dog the employees met during a company hike, takes its cues from the user’s location. For example, if she's on her way to the airport, the app will automatically pull up check-in information. If she's going to a meeting but traffic is heavy, it will ask if she wants to send an email to attendees telling them she’ll be late. Last month, the company announced $1.1 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Google Ventures, InterWest Partners and angels.

For it’s part, Osito is working to solidify the differences between its app and that of competitors. The company made a few tweaks to the service since it launched in beta, in accordance with feedback from early users. These include changes on the backend so the software can recognize a bigger variety of hotel accommodations, including Airbnb rentals. It also does littler things like giving you the week’s forecast in the city where you work, not necessarily the city where you live.

But the really interesting bit of progress is that the company is moving forward with its plans to turn itself into a predictive intelligence platform. In a sea of these kinds of predictive app companies, Osito claims its value add is creating a platform on which third party developers can build on Osito’s software to create other predictive experiences. For example, having your phone sense when you’re close to home, and asking you if you want your door unlocked and the heat turned on. The platform has intriguing implications for connected device makers.

CEO Bill Ferrell says the company has been working with a few partners, which he will announce in the coming months, and is planning to open it up to the general developer public after that.

Osito's got challenges ahead. It's got nuances related to location-based services, but if a user is already using one if its competitors, will its offerings be enough for her to make the switch? Also, the connected device market is a huge opportunity, and developers might not want to lean so heavily on one platform, so gaining mass adoption from that community could be tough.

But the fruition of that platform will be when things get interesting, and we’ll see if Osito can not only be innovative, but an enabler of innovation as well.