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Finally: Real virtual assistants

Mike Elgan | Dec. 18, 2012
Apple's Siri feature is supposed to be a "virtual personal assistant," and one that's "proactive" and "intelligent."

The app will pop up an alert while you're in a meeting, telling you that you've got to leave now if you want to be on time for the next meeting. If you're going to be late, tap a button and it will inform your fellow meeting attendees.

EasilyDo can remind you to pay your bills, file your business receipts and even place calls for you. (If you're joining a conference call, it will even dial the access code.)

Google Now

The most powerful and impressive virtual assistant is Google's free Google Now. It's impressive because it goes out and finds sources of data that you never even knew existed. You don't have to explicitly connect it to this social network or that data service.

Google Now proactively tosses up relevant information in the form of "cards" based on what it learns about you over time. It will give you weather, traffic and sports updates, information about upcoming appointments, incoming package alerts, birthday reminders, event reminders and more, right when you most need that information.

If you're at a bus stop or train station, it will alert you to the next arrivals.

Recently, Google Now was updated to include the ability to access your Gmail account and grab airline boarding passes that can be scanned at the gate for easy boarding.

That's just the beginning of the Gmail-harvesting capabilities that give Google Now qualities similar to those of a real personal assistant.

Google Now debuted on Android devices, but it might soon be available on desktop computers running Google's Chrome browser, according to a post on a Google site for developers.

The addition of Google Now desktop capabilities would have breathtaking implications. Every action you take online -- searches, email, shopping, gaming, chat, social networking and more -- would become data that the Google Now virtual assistant could harvest to more intelligently serve you.

Google Now provides a powerful incentive for users to sign up for the full complement of personal data-harvesting Google services. (The privacy implications for all this are fodder for another column.)

Note that personal information gathered on the desktop would affect mobile use of Google Now, and vice versa.


A free new iOS app called Grokr is the closest thing iPhone users have to Google Now.

(As of this writing, Grokr had not yet been approved for public downloading in the App Store, but it should be available any day now.)

Grokr is supposed to work like Google Now, presenting you proactively with "cards" of information based on your context and history.

But Grokr is more Big Brotherish: It logs every location you visit and uses that information as the basis of future suggestions.


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