When a smartphone app wants to alert you to a coming appointment, a text message or some bit of breaking news from your social network, it sends a tiny flare that lights up your phone’s lock screen. Depending on how you’ve set it up, the app might then buzz your pocket like a manic bee, sound a citywide panic alarm or begin playing “La Cucaracha.”
When they were first introduced, these so-called push notifications were a creative way to let our phones get our attention; now that they buzz every few seconds, they are a constant annoyance. And the glut of notifications is just one example of a growing problem with our smartphones: They are not smart enough.
Like a bumbling concierge, your phone often tries to assist you without pausing to consider any of the basic information it collects about your life. For instance, your phone has access to your calendar, and it also knows your physical location. So why isn’t it smarter about sending you the right notification at the right time—for instance, not during a first date? Why can’t it prioritise alerts from your wife and your boss over notifications for tweets from your high school pals?
Your smartphone is the information clearinghouse of your life; it knows more about you than your spouse, your dermatologist and even your favourite national intelligence agency. Yet your phone often behaves as if it knows nothing, with each app, and the entire operating system, blithely disregarding information that should be useful in determining how to help.
Once you begin thinking about your phone’s stupidity, it’s hard to stop. Look at its address book. Why are the names arranged alphabetically rather than in order of the people you interact with most frequently, or the people you’re likely to interact with today?
Or consider the calendar. Given all that your phone knows about how you spend your day—where you are, where you’re going next and how you’re procrastinating— why can’t it suggest the best time for you to tackle each item on your to-do list?
The good news is that some of this seems to be happening, slowly. As my colleague Molly Wood wrote in May, start-ups have lately been creating a new breed of programs known as contextual apps. These aim to process information about how you use your phone to improve how it works—for instance, by arranging the icons on your home screen according to