Essays on Technology and Culture

Mynd, Google Now, and the State of Context on iOS

For the past two weeks or so, I’ve been trying out two iPhone apps that try to deliver on some of the potential of context-based computing. I’ve found it somewhat wanting. The reasons behind all of this lie in the shortcomings of iOS, the difficulty of location awareness in a dense urban area, and a personal life that doesn’t play to these apps strengths. Below are my experiences with two apps:


Mynd is a “smart calendar” that I learned about from Merlin Mann’s latest appearance on Mac Power Users. Even before Merlin finished talking it up, I downloaded the app and set it up. Slightly over a week later, I uninstalled it. Mynd didn’t work for me because my calendar is not full of lots of appointments and meetings. I have the lucky, rare knowledge worker job that lets me sit at my desk mostly unmolested for the majority of the day to get work done. The furthest afield I’d ever have to go for a meeting is two floors up.

Mynd could be useful to help me with my commute and travel to various extracurriculars. Problem is, I don’t drive, and Mynd doesn’t do public transit directions. This is, I suspect, because iOS has no native public transit directions since uncoupling from Google Maps. It’s a shame, because it’s a pretty app, and if you have a more packed calendar than I do, Mynd might work out. Harry C. Marks seems to dig it, and between him and Merlin, that’s two ringing endorsement.

Google Now

Along with Mynd, I’ve been experimenting (or re-experimenting) with Google Now. Google recently added push notification support to the Google Search iOS app, which is also the interface to Google Now. I figured this would solve the biggest problem I had when I tried Google Now for the first time of having to dive into the app to see my cards. It’s been almost two weeks, and I have yet to receive a single push notification on my phone from Google. Not one.

In fairness, part of this may be that I turned off a big pile of the possible notifications/cards I can get. I don’t need to be notified when a movie comes out, when there’s breaking news, or when some Google Sponsored restaurant is near me. I only want my phone to buzz when I need to know something else useful to my daily life. Turning off all the cruft reduces the number of things Google Now will push to me by quite a bit, but it’s worrying that I still haven’t seen a single push notification.

When I remember to launch the app, Google Now is hit or miss about what cards I get. Some mornings, it knows I’m going to commute to work. Other mornings, it just gives me the weather. In the evenings, its much the same. Part of the problem with Google Now might be that it’s not pulling events from the iCloud calendars I’m syncing to Google Calendar through subscriptions. If that’s the case, I’m not sure it’ll be worth my time to switch from iCloud back to Google for calendaring.

Previous Attempts and Future Plans

I’ve yet to find something in this space that really works for me. The other apps I’ve played with in this space: Cue and OSITO are dead. Cue was snapped up by Apple. With luck, this means that Cue’s awesome functionality and search integration will come to iOS 8 in some form. OSITO, meanwhile, seems to have disappeared from the face of the Internet entirely. Sad, because it was the best alternative to Google Now before Google Now came to iOS.

It would be great if Apple’s own offerings were more robust. It’s great Apple knows where all my events are, and when, but the lack of subway directions and service notifications really hurts functionality. I guess I’ll know when WWDC rolls around if the Cue acquisition will help with that. As it stands now, I think I’ll just have to stick with being mindful and not relying on my machine to remember everything for me. Though, if I do move my appointments to Google Calendar…

…I might have to report back in a week or so. I really want to make this work.