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Will Google Now make apps obsolete one day?

John P. Mello Jr. Freelance writer

When Google Now Director Aparna Chennapragada walked on stage at Google's I/O conference for developers in May, she received a rousing round of applause. The developers in the crowd may not have been so enthusiastic if they knew that Chennapragada was about to present to them a road map for rendering many of their apps obsolete.

"Your smartphone ought to be smarter," she told the keen crowd at the forum. "Why can't it tell you where you parked your car? Why can't it remind you to pick up the milk that your spouse texted you about? And in fact, why can't it figure out that you're flying to New York in two months and you should call your college roommate, and you should book show tickets in advance, and don't forget to check out that cupcake place that you really loved the last time."

Putting app data on tap

Of course, there are apps that can do all those things, but they can't do it in a unified way like the product Chennapragada was on stage to tout. With Now On Tap, which will be part of the next release of Google's mobile operating system, Android M, you can get all the information you need, when you need it, and in the form of your choice. The feature works across apps, so no matter what app you're using on your phone, it can provide you with information you're looking for, as well as information it thinks you want before you know you want it.

Now On Tap is fueled by Google's vast information resources, but it will also be drawing data from apps installed on a phone. So when you walk into the parking garage where you've parked your car, Now On Tap can grab that information from your parking app and flash it on your phone before you can open the app. Sounds great, right? Not for developers. If you don't open the parking app, you don't see the ads, which means developers lose money. Google, on the other hand, doesn't lose a thing but wins big: it now has access to data in the app, data that it wouldn't have gained access to if you'd used the parking app directly.

Chennapragada put a positive spin on Google's tapping into app data. "What does this mean for developers?" she asked. "Yep. This is a new way that you can reach...your relevant users in the moment once your app is indexed by Google." In the app jungle where discovery is difficult, that's a powerful attraction for developers.

As unsettling as Now On Tap may be to developers, it's a sign that the smartphone is evolving, says Michael Facemire, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Apps give us a nice, well-defined sandbox in which we do things, such as hail a taxi or look for restaurant reviews or get recipes," he explains.

The next evolution of that is to obtain desired information that isn't contained in a single app. "Individual app developers can't think far enough ahead and their apps aren't nuanced enough to know what I want to do in my current situation at my current period of time," he says.

"So why don't we bring in context? Why don't we bring in what my calendar says I should be doing right now, what my current location is, how quickly I'm moving to tell if I'm walking or in a car? Why don't we bring all that context together and determine what I really want," Facemire says. "That's where things like Google Now and Cortana and Siri come into play. All of a sudden we can have these intelligent digital assistants that help us stitch these things together."

Siri, when will apps be old school?

The notion that Siri and its ilk will be the death of apps isn't new. On MIT's Technology Review website in February 2013, San Francisco Bureau Chief Tom Simonite raised the prospect of Siri as app grim reaper. "It may be that the era of apps being the main thing about mobile devices is ending," he wrote.

"Apple and Google turned to app developers in the first place, and promoted what they came up with, because smartphones needed flashy features to appear worth buying (revenue from app sales has never been very significant)," he wrote. "But people get a smoother experience if they can avoid having to think about apps, and Apple and Google get to be more intimate with their users."

Nevertheless, apps are still going strong. "Consumers like self-contained apps," says Morgan Reed, executive director of ACT|The App Association, which represents 5,000 app and IT companies worldwide. "They like apps that work in dead spots and whether or not they have WiFi"—a reference to Google's offerings' need to be connected to the Internet to function.

Now On Tap has the potential to build a great experience for users and free them from constantly opening and closing apps, but it also feeds Google's insatiable hunger for data. "Understanding how a company generates its revenue is important in understanding what its products do," Reed says. "With Google, more than 90 percent of its revenue is from advertising. It needs data to provide value to those advertisers."

"Google has almost all the analytics for websites," he says. "But they only have a fraction of that from the app world, so while Google Now's ability to enhance applications is part of the story, their motivation for doing it needs to be connected to their business somewhere, and their business is advertising."

Can't we all just get along?

Despite Google's grand designs for Google Now, the most likely scenario is for it and other personal assistants like it to coexist with apps. "Google Now will make the app community possibly smaller, but definitely not worse or obsolete," says David McIninch, vice president of marketing for Acquisio, the maker of an online marketing management platform. "Google Now is really trying to leverage the data Google collects from you constantly to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your ability to run your day," he says.

He says Google Now will scoop the small end of the "make my life easier" market," but there will still be plenty of room for developers to focus on the next successful game, fitness app, or social collaboration tool.

"Apps will eventually be replaced by something even more seamless in terms of user experience and intuitiveness—like what Google is trying to accomplish with Now," McIninch added. "But that day is still a ways off."

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