'Proactive' To Bring Google Now Features To iOS 9

28 May 2015

9to5Mac:

Below the search bar will sit a new user interface that automatically populates with content based around three key parts of iOS: Apps, Contacts, and Maps, effectively a considerably upgraded version of Siri’s existing “digital assistant” functionality. For example, if a user has a flight listed in her Calendar application and a boarding pass stored in Passbook, a bubble within the new Proactive screen will appear around flight time to provide quick access to the boarding pass. If a user has a calendar appointment coming up, a map view could appear with an estimated arrival time, directions, and a time to leave indicator based on traffic. Proactive will also be able to trigger push notifications to help the user avoid missing calendar events.

Beyond Calendar integration, the feature will be able to integrate with commonly used apps. For example, if an iPhone user typically opens the Facebook app when he wakes up around 9AM, a button to access Facebook will start to appear for the user around 9AM. If the user calls his mother every Tuesday at 5PM, a bubble to “Call Mom” could appear around that time every Tuesday. As this feature integrates deeply with a user’s contact list, it is likely that the Recent Contacts menu introduced to the top of the Multitasking pane in iOS 8 will be relocated to Proactive’s interface. Lastly, Proactive will be able to display restaurant suggestions and ratings around breakfast, lunch, and dinner times in Proactive, changing based on the user’s location.

First and foremost, Apple is moving the Spotlight search view to a new place in the UI (next to the first page of the home screen) which is a huge improvement for visibility compared its current hidden location, only revealed by a disconnected downward swipe at the screen. Having no visual indicators about the feature is rough but it was doubly-complicated by the discrepancy of swiping from the edge to open Notification Center and swiping from ‘not-the-edge’ to activate Spotlight. Explaining this to family was tough and they still forget about Spotlight a few weeks later. Returning Spotlight to its pre-iOS 7 position is the right move for user experience and its reassuring to see that Apple is not stubbornly against using some elements of the ‘old’ iOS era.

The wholly new Proactive features sound cool. From Gurman’s description, it sounds very similar to Google Now but focused on areas where Apple can collect good data. For example, the Proactive feature will notice user habits regarding when they open apps and show as appropriate. For instance, surfacing the Starbucks app in the mornings for users who take a daily commute.

The places where Android will continue to surpass Apple is in areas where it cannot collect the same level of data. Few users use iCloud Mail so crawling that for contextual information is out of the question unlike Google’s dominance with Gmail. In the future, I think Apple could potentially get around this problem by looking at your email through the Mail.app databases. It doesn’t necessarily have to host your email to get features like this but obviously this is a big undertaking that is out of scope for the initial release.

In fact, Gurman reports that Vorrath is hesitant to launch Proactive in any ‘full’ capacity — preferring an iterative sequence of releases. This seems like risk-averse damage limitation. Just like Siri and Maps, Proactive is one of those fuzzy-logic big-data features that is impossible to work flawlessly every time. By starting small, they contain the inevitably negative PR backlash.

When iOS 9 ships, it will be interesting to observe whether people actually latch on to these new Proactive features and use them. Old habits die hard and tapping on application icons is deeply ingrained into user behaviour. Android has had Google Now features for years now and — anecdotally — they are underused too.