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How Apple's Rumored 'Proactive' Can Beat Google Now

We've all had moments when we wished our iPhones were, frankly, a whole lot smarter. Why do we have to tell it about our travel plans when we've already received emails about them? Why can't it realize we've added a virtual concert tickets and create a corresponding event on our calendar?

Google has made some progress in this direction with its Google Now service, and Apple has lagged behind. But according to a report by 9to5Mac, the company will unveil a new, smarter system for triaging this information, codenamed "Proactive."

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If Apple does undertake this endeavor, how can the company hope to match Google, which has a love of collecting and organizing users' data that's just this side of Norman Bates's enthusiasm for taxidermy? By playing to Apple's strengths, of course.

The Meaning of Things

Apple has already dabbled in this kind of contextual information in the Today pane that appears in Notification Center. Apple uses this small area to alert users to information that's deemed pertinent, based on what it can infer from both data available to the system (such as the time or current location) and what it already knows about you.

iOS 8's Today pane

iOS 8's Today pane

For example, the Today pane can figure out that you drive to your office every weekday morning; thus, Monday through Friday, it can provide an estimate of how long it will take you to get there in current traffic conditions without you having to do anything. The Calendar app can also build in traffic times for events, though it requires a little more time from users.

Google has a big leg up on Apple, however, for the simple reason that people voluntarily give the company a lot of information. Every time you type something into Google's search engine, get an email via Gmail or put something on your calendar, that information is recorded, indexed and used to further enhance the company's understanding of you. Indeed, Google has already unveiled plans to ratchet up its Google Now service, announcing a Now on Tap feature for Android M that promises to put contextual information about whatever the user is doing -- looking up a movie, listening to a song, even texting about a vacation spot -- at the press and hold of a button.

Google's considerable advantage in personal assistants could grow bigger with the arrival of the Tap to Now feature in Android M.

Google's considerable advantage in personal assistants could grow bigger with the arrival of the Tap to Now feature in Android M.

Apple doesn’t have the advantage of a public-facing search engine like Google’s. So instead, it could turn to email to learn more about you -- specifically the accounts you already have in the built-in Mail app. Despite the number of communication technologies at our disposal these days, email remains our major record of transactions online. Allowing iOS to peruse email messages -- with a user's permission, naturally -- would greatly extend what a feature like Proactive could do.

That would rely on another key ingredient: data detectors. Apple's long been using this technology to find and parse certain types of information contained within unstructured text, such as a date or phone number in an email. You can, for example, tap a highlighted package tracking number in iOS's Mail app, and a menu will appear with the option to track that shipment. Expanding those types of detectors to other structured information, such as flights, for example, or hotel bookings, would allow Proactive to potentially pull out that data and present it to users in a useful manner.

The Apple Difference

So given that Google Now already provides a similar feature, what can Apple bring to the party? Two things: top-notch integration on iOS and privacy.

The first is a no-brainer. Google offers a version of its Now feature in its Google Search app for iOS, which provides many -- though not all -- of the same capabilities found on Android. But by building a feature like Proactive into iOS, Apple has the ability to hook it more deeply into the operating system. That means giving the feature access to prime real estate -- rumors suggest Proactive will appear to the left of the original Home screen, where the Spotlight search feature used to reside -- and potentially let it sidestep restrictions enforced on third-party apps, such as how often it can retrieve data. On iOS devices, Google and other third parties would still be limited to providing very little amounts of data -- namely push notifications -- when users aren't actively looking at their app.

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It also could mean integration with Siri, which has so far been off-limits to third-party apps. You might then be able to ask Apple's voice assistant information about your upcoming trip, or what the status of a package is, for example. That could go a long way to making the intelligent agent more useful, allowing it to answer more complicated questions like "when do I have to leave for my flight today?" or "when is my Amazon shipment being delivered?"

Then there's privacy. Despite a few slips here and there -- remember the concerns a few year ago over how much personal data third-party apps could access? -- Apple is generally perceived as putting users' privacy toward the forefront of its concerns; Google, on the other hand, tends to be viewed with a more cynical eye -- the company does, after all, make its bread-and-butter on targeting ads based on what it learns about its user. It's only in the upcoming Android M that Google will actually roll out granular privacy permissions of the kind that iOS has had for years.

Being able to control what information is accessed by Proactive -- and, more important, the ability to revoke that access at any time -- could be a big plus for those who are wary about giving out more of their personal information than necessary.

At the end of the day, though, what users really want out of such a feature is what they always demand from Apple: a highly polished experience that lets them get more out of their devices. Deliver a feature that bends to users’ needs instead of the other way around, and Apple could begin to approach what Google provides with Google Now.