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An explosion of apps

Robin Vasan and Prashant Fuloria are, respectively, managing director and executive in residence at the Mayfield Fund.

There are over a billion smartphones being used around the world today, but most apps running on them are still quite dumb, in that they throw away a lot of valuable information that could be harnessed to serve users better and to provide a better overall experience.

Don’t believe us? Just look at the highly popular apps from Yelp and Amazon. Yelp’s app search ignores your implicit cuisine preferences, which it could easily extract from your prior queries and navigation. Yelp also overlooks contextual factors like weather and time of day, showing “Bars” and “Nightlife” prominently in its Nearby feature, even at seven in the morning!

Ditto for Amazon’s PriceCheck app, which seems to not only ignore your purchase history but also whether you’re searching for that toaster oven from your home or at your local Target.

We don’t mean to pick on Yelp and Amazon – we’re confident that if you spend some time thinking about any favorite app, you’ll come up with several ways in which it could make your life easier by intelligently utilizing your prior usage, your social graph, your location, time of day, and so on.

The good news is that things are quickly changing for the better, thanks to the emergence of a new class of apps which embody the definition of “smart” by being personalized, contextual, and proactive. Just as the rise of services like Pinterest changed user expectations around visual design and intuitive interfaces, we believe that these new smart apps will train users to expect all their mobile apps to:

  • know them (who);
  • remember their past interactions and preferences (what);
  • factor in their context (when, where);
  • and even take permission-based actions on their behalf.

The hottest area for this trend is the personal productivity space. Three years ago, Siri gave users a glimpse of how smart apps could make them more productive. However, while Siri continues to provide a convenient speech interface and integrates nicely with core iOS apps (phone, calendar, reminders, etc.), it has been leapfrogged by Google Now, which leverages deep Android OS integration and connection into Google services (Gmail, Google Apps, Google+ and your search history) to provide a more personalized, contextual and proactive virtual assistant experience.

Google Now has its own limitations, especially the lack of integration with other key services like Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft Exchange or other email providers. Entrepreneurs are hoping to exploit these limitations: witness the recent debuts of apps like Mailbox, Tempo, Cue, Grokr and EasilyDo. These apps use intelligence to organize inboxes with a simple swipe, show you useful details for calendar events, provide routes that avoid traffic, dial into conference calls, and suggest friends who need to be congratulated or consoled.

Smart apps don’t all have to be virtual assistants or personal productivity apps. We see a raft of opportunities across the board for entrepreneurs to disrupt entire categories. To share a few examples:

  • Newsreaders are getting increasingly smart. Prismatic incorporates not only your interests (personalization), but also your location (context) to determine what articles to show you. The Relevance app explicitly asks you for an important piece of context (how much time you have to spare) to serve you just the right number of stories. We hope that these and other recent newsreaders are intelligently using user-level engagement feedback in the way they rank articles.
  • In the world of commerce, Walmart has built some modest smarts into its new mobile app. If the app senses that you are in a store, it offers you a store-specific experience, including local ads, rollbacks and new products. We’d love to see Walmart take the next step and provide in-store aisle-level directions so you don’t have to ask an employee where the diapers are stocked.
  • We’ve all heard about the holy grail in local: As you walk down the street, you get notified about a special offer on your favorite coffee at the nearby café. While we’ve yet to see anyone actually deliver on this promise in a meaningful way, we’re optimistic that apps like Spindle, which claim to use both personal and contextual signals to push relevant local information, might actually get us there this year.
  • Why should consumer apps have all the fun? On the enterprise front, ServiceMax (which Mayfield has invested in) is a company providing solutions for field service management (think Pitney Bowes repairmen). Its mobile app automatically updates a technician’s schedule with incoming service requests, based on parameters like customer revenue, customer and technician location, technician skills and prior interaction with the customer. If you work in a field services organization, this is actually a lot more exciting than having your news organized smarter or getting that surprise special on your coffee.

Why is this change happening now? We see several factors converging to unleash smarter apps:

  • Mobile First – Mobile has become the primary entry point for all types of users, who are using smaller form factors with much less real estate, yet want to be able to do the same or more as they do on their desktop. While many companies realized this a couple of years ago (think Facebook implementing mobile-only signup), most apps that go beyond passive consumption are still mere companions to their desktop counterparts. Personalization, context and proactive suggestions are tools to reduce the number of steps required by a user to accomplish a task on mobile.
  • Device, Network, and Cloud Infrastructure – Mobile devices are much more powerful in terms of processors, sensors (cameras, GPS, etc.) and improved battery life, always-on cellular or Wi-Fi access is a relatively safe assumption, and low-cost, geographically distributed, high-performance cloud infrastructure (thanks to Amazon Web Services) has enabled analytical processing across vast amounts of data.
  • User Behavior – Users are now more willing to share data with apps if they believe that this will result in a better experience for them. It has become quite easy and commonplace for mobile apps to get access into contacts, calendar, location and even services like Facebook and email. EasilyDo (a Mayfield portfolio company) reports that virtually all its users give the app access to their contacts, over 50 percent of its users give access to their Facebook accounts, and over 30 percent of users give access to three or more connections including an email account.

If you’re excited about this new wave of smart apps, join the club. We believe we are just in the first innings in the creation and delivery of smart apps and looking forward to partnering with entrepreneurs building disruptive mobile apps and companies.

[Editor’s note: The mobile app experience discussed in this article will be explored in greater depth at VentureBeat’s upcoming Mobile Summit, an invitation-only gathering of 180 top mobile executives, April 1-2, 2013. Find out more about the Mobile Summit here.]

Robin Vasan, Mayfield FundRobin Vasan, Managing Director, is a former software entrepreneur who has been on the Mayfield Fund investing team since 1999. He invests in early-stage companies that leverage the drivers of mobile, cloud, SaaS and big data.  Some of his notable companies include webMethods, Trigo and Akimbi and some of his current investments include Alfresco, CloudPhysics, Couchbase, EasilyDo and Marketo.

Prashant Fuloria, Mayfield FundPrashant Fuloria, Executive in Residence, brings a decade of product management experience from Facebook and Google. At Facebook, Prashant led the product team for Facebook Ads and subsequently managed commerce products, including Facebook Credits. At Google, he managed all of Google’s products for the Asia-Pacific region, led its global billing & payments product efforts, and served as an early member of the AdWords product team.

Image: Blake Patterson/Flickr

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