Meet Your Digital Butler: a 'Social OS'

By Dow Jones Business News, 
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By | By Christopher Mims

What if all of us had our own search engine for everyone with whom we have ever come in contact, no matter how trivial our interaction? And what if it already knew who they were, and served as a master contacts database for pretty much the entire world? And what if this service lived on all our devices, organizing the world according to people rather than places or things? In the car, you would tell it who you plan to meet. On your wrist, it's a way to never forget a name. On your phone, well, it's your phone.

That is the vision of Ankur Jain, the 24-year-old founder of Humin, who calls it a "social OS"--something like what Facebook has tried and in some respects failed to create.

For now, Humin's most visible expression is as a clever replacement for the Phone app on your iPhone. But that, says Mr. Jain, is just the beginning. "Step one in this process is, you've got to solve a problem people care about in daily life," says Mr. Jain.

Humin scours your email, social networks and calendars, building a master contacts list of everyone who is willing to feed it their information. It also streams out emails to the uninitiated in your contacts, asking them to confirm details already stored in dozens and eventually thousands of address books. This can be a little creepy for some people.

The result is a new kind of responsive phone and contacts app. Pop open your current phone app on Apple's iOS and you get an alphabetical list of names, a system pretty much unchanged since the arrival of cellphones. Humin replaces your phone app--completely. You can curate lists of the people you call most. And you can use it as you would Facebook's People Search. You can search for "friends of so and so," or by where someone lives, works or studied, or even where you were when you met them.

Humin is a part of a larger phenomenon called contextual computing, the most well-known example of which is Google Now, which is prominent on Android phones as a sort of prediction algorithm for what you'll want to know or do next. (It is also available on the iPhone, but owing to Apple's rules the integration isn't nearly as good.) Like Google Now, Humin aspires to automate the organization of your social life: When you arrive in a new city, a "card" pops up in Humin letting you know who you might want to be in touch with there. Unlike Google Now, Humin explicitly doesn't aspire to organize other dimensions of your life, like your calendar, says Mr. Jain.

Where this is all going is pretty clear, and we've already seen hints of it in Google's operating system for smartwatches, which is also based on Google Now. Rather than spending all our time interacting with devices full of icons and apps to accomplish particular tasks, more and more those devices will reach out to us, like digital butlers, giving us what we want when we need it and prompting us with clarifying questions to do their job better.

To get a better handle on that future, at the same time I have been using Humin, I have been plowing through a small avalanche of other recently released apps designed to take the data in my email, calendar and contacts and make them more relevant, useful and immediate. Apps whose dominant interaction model is the calendar, not contacts, including Sunrise, Mynd, EasilyDo and Tempo crowd my home screen and alerts tab, each with a different opinion about how to tell me whom I should talk to, when, and how I should go about transporting myself to their last known location.

I thought installing all of them at once would be redundant, but what I discovered is that each has its utility: Sunrise is good at ingesting calendar items from other apps, Mynd is as good or better than Google Now at knowing traffic conditions and alerting me to when I need to leave for my next meeting, EasilyDo tells me when my packages have arrived, and Tempo is the most personal assistant-like, handing me a dossier for each day the moment I wake up.

All of these apps are enriched by the growing depth of my contacts list enabled and encouraged by Humin, plus all the (unintended) chatter between them that happens because they are accessing my calendar. Even Google Now is getting better--it has more contacts and calendar items from which to draw.

Sensitive to the privacy implications of an app that aspires to know everything about everywhere I go and everyone with whom I've ever conversed, Mr. Jain assures me that his company has developed a strict privacy code they call "Humin Rights." Its technological component is a clever hack. "Your private data never touches our servers," Mr. Jain says. Nearly all of the processing of all my data is done on my phone itself, and only my contacts are backed up in the cloud.

The other apps I tried require the same level of trust I put in Google, and I suspect that they too may someday have to adopt a policy like Humin's to not feel too creepy or invasive. Still, the trade-off for the kind of future Humin and other apps embody will require even more trust in third parties that haven't always proved up to the task.

The sum of all these contextual apps is, for now, a kind of ambient awareness of the contents of my day that I suppose more organized and less distractible people have known for years. But the engineers and CEOs I talked to insist this is but the first version of what contextual computing will look like. In the future, "having to worry about when and how things will be done will disappear," says Max Wheeler, CEO of Mynd.

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