Imagine a weather app that detects when you’ve woken up, waits until the room is bright enough, finds a nearby TV screen and projects today’s forecast onto it without you even having to touch your smartphone. A music streaming service that detects when you’re out running in the sun and recommends an energetic playlist accordingly, made up of enough tracks to cover your average 27 minute jog. A camera app that logs not just the location at which the picture was taken, but the activity being performed and current weather when the it was snapped. ‘Pictures taken in the sun whilst jogging’ may soon become a folder in your pictures app, automatically of course.
These are all examples used by Google at their 2016 I/O event, as they introduced their Awareness API to developers, which they hope will allow their users to create apps that work around a person’s lifestyle, rather than the other way around. It’s only when its brought to your attention do you really notice the amount of time you spend moving between apps and services on your smartphone daily. The notion of a more automated, ‘smarter’ network of apps is an exciting one - reducing the amount of steps necessary to perform an action on a smartphone has long been a challenge for developers, and the Awareness API could provide the solution. The example of the morning routine is a good one - an alarm, a weather check, a traffic update and all could be automated to make the user’s day run more smoothly.
In Google’s own words, 'The Awareness API unifies 7 location and context signals in a single API, enabling [developers] to create powerful context-based features with minimal impact on system resources.’ Essentially, the API collates the data collected by a smartphone’s sensors and allows apps to access them. The app can, in turn, be more aware of what a user’s current activity is and suggest assistance accordingly. If a user is soon to drive by a drug store - that the app can check is still open - and is overdue a pickup of some medication, the user can be notified of this.
This more connected, personal app experience holds potential not just for users, but for developers too. If your app can streamline ‘critical tasks’ that users perform every single day, Google’s Bhavik Singh says, ‘your app becomes a part of their habits, which can increase your retention. Suggesting the right playlist when you’re running, or reminding a user to buy medication, is suggesting important actions to your users, ones that they might even have forgotten. And these sorts of actions will mean that they’re more likely to click on your notifications, if those actions are tailored, which can increase your click-through rate not the very, very important actions that you care about.’
And TechCrunch believe that apps that are built from the ground up with machine learning at their core could topple the current incumbents, who will only be able to augment their existing apps, rather than revolutionize them. A truly ‘aware’ app can offer a new level of functionality and personalization, and those that manage to draw real value from the data collected by a smartphone’s many - and increasingly complex - sensors, will be the most successful in the coming years.
There are huge issues of privacy here, though. Users may like the idea of an alarm that cross-references your night’s sleep with your work schedule for the day, giving you an extra hour’s sleep or waking you up early when it deems necessary. The cost of this extra functionality, though, is the surrender of a huge amount of personal data - apps will have access to your location, your activities, your sleeping habits and even your mood when best determining how to assist you. User trust of developers is low - WhatsApp has been sure that its users are aware of its end-to-end encryption on messages, a measure only necessary in a climate of distrust. Many users simply won’t care, but in a world where people feel their digital information is already far too public, it may take time for the benefits of ‘aware’ apps to outweigh the sacrifice in the eyes of many.
A world in which apps respond to your habits and circumstances is set to move from the stuff of science fiction into reality, and Google’s Awareness API will only accelerate the process. If the technology can avoid being derailed by privacy issues, and genuinely useful applications can be found, expect apps to have a much bigger (and more useful) role to play in your daily life, all without prompting.