Essays on Technology and Culture

A Privately Proactive iPhone

The WWDC Keynote has come and gone, and I’m super excited about one feature in iOS 9 in particular: Proactive. It’s really just a bunch of extensions to Siri and Spotlight, but what extensions they are! The most exciting are the ability to launch apps from the lock screen, chosen by the phone based on what you do, where, and when. So, when I get to the office, I can sit down at my desk and flip open OmniFocusWunderlist, and get an overview of my day. Or, more likely, just dive right into Overcast. When I come home in the evening, and decide to go for my daily run before dinner, it can let me go right into my running app of choice, and queue up my running playlist. Bedtime? It can offer me Sleep Cycle.

Proactive on the Spotlight Screen

There’s also a bunch of improvements to the Spotlight screen, including contact and app suggestions based on where you are and what you have on the calendar. There’s integration between calendar and maps, so if I have an event coming up, it can give me traffic and travel time ahead of time—and hopefully public transit, since that’s been added to Apple Maps in the new OS. It’s all looking incredible, and now I know that the old, beloved Cue app team has actually been working on stuff in Cupertino. This is the sort of stuff i’ve been dreaming about for over a year… only to end up disappointed by third-party offerings. Maybe iOS 9 is the start.

Of course, Google Now has offered something similar for years now. It never worked for me, but I did give it an honest chance. Twice, actually. The second time was my great Pebble experiment, as Google Now is exactly the sort of thing a smartwatch was made for. But, after one too many “Hey, you should leave for work now” alerts while I was already on the subway heading into the city, I deleted it with prejudice. I’d rather go without than have one that doesn’t work.

And I’d rather go without than load Google up with more of my data than seems necessary. Which leads to the other awesome thing about the Proactive features in iOS 9—they’re locked to the hardware. Craig Federghi made a point during the presentation that all the Proactive smarts are “done on-device and it stays on-device under your control.” I can see this not just as a boon for my personal privacy, but also as a boost to reliability for someone who spends two hours every working day underground with limited and spotty connectivity. We’ll see which is going to work better, but I’m glad the gauntlet has been thrown.

I’m not opposed to sharing my data for useful services. I’m opposed to sharing that data and having it sold to advertisers, at least not without knowing precisely what I’m giving up. That’s something for a very different essay. Still, with Apple planting their flag firmly in the ground of user privacy and security, I’m more willing to give their service a shot. Proactive looks almost exactly like what I’ve dreamed of… and it’s only the start of what could become a life-changing set of technologies. I want in.