Why Apple Bought Cue (Hint: To Build You a Better iWatch)

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Apple bought the Google Now-like app Cue this week. The reason has a lot to do with Apple’s strategy to out-Google Google in the coming war over wearable, and also the future of mobile.

Here’s why the Cue acquisition is really going to matter. 

Cue was founded by CEO Daniel Gross and and co-founder and CTO Robby Walker and was purchased this week for more than $50 million by Apple.

As part of the acquisition, and in a typical Apple move, Cue was shut down to create a disconnect between the original product and the upcoming Apple version. (“Pro” customers will get a refund.) Apple did the same thing with Siri, only to later relaunch it as an Apple product with fewer options.

In the case of Cue, it’s unlikely that it will be relaunched as a separate app, or exclusively so. It’s almost certainly going to be baked right in to Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant feature of iOS.

Cue, the iPhone app, formerly known as “Greplin,” was once neatly described by Lifehacker as a “search engine for your cloud data” placed into a “scheduled format.” The company was also called Cue, and it’s a San Francisco-based Y Combinator startup that launched (as Greplin) in February, 2011.

Cue grabbed cloud data from your email, contacts, calendar, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Dropbox, Evernote, Tumblr and other locations, after getting your permission. (The connection to some of these services cost users a $4.99 monthly subscription. Others could be unlocked by inviting someone else to use the service.) It would then give you a “snapshot” of your day. More importantly, it would process all that data and algorithmically figure out what information you needed and when. Email was especially key. Cue looked for airline flight information, shipping and invitations, and harvest that data for contextual notifications.

It also provided “glue” to attach related information from different services together. A typical example would be to offer up a calendar alert with contact information for the people you’re meeting with, plus data on the restaurant where you’ll be meeting.

In other words, it was the iPhone’s Google Now before Google Now was available on iPhone.

In general, Cue was broadly inferior to Google Now. But it attempted to do some things Google Now really should do. For example, it would harvest names, phone numbers and email addresses from emails and Linkedin and Salesforce accounts, and auto-construct a contacts list.

I have no idea why Google doesn’t figure out a way to integrate contact building into Google Now, plus intelligent algorithms to display by default your actual regular contacts, instead of, say, treating everyone you’ve ever emailed as equal.

Mostly, however, Cue was all upside potential, with most of its features largely unrealized for lack of resources. But those days are over.

How Cue Will Help Apple Build Its Own Google Now

I believe Apple is planning the kind of preemptive notifications and “creative” suggestions that Google Now is so good at.

Cue’s core competency is algorithmic. It’s ability to sift through huge amounts of personal information and zero in on the relevant information, then presenting it to the user just as they need it — that’s the unfulfilled promise of Cue which Apple will try to fulfill.

It’s unlikely Apple plus Cue will ever match the sheer algorithmic power of Google. This is what the company does better than anyone. Still, it’s a brilliant move for Apple.

The cynical, negative analysis of this move is that Apple plans to win through the power of “closed.” They can give Cue-enhanced Siri exclusive system-level access to various iOS functions, which they can deny to Google. So future-Siri will be “better” than Google Now for iOS users at some things, and of course Google Now will be better at others. Only iOS users will have a choice between either or both. Android will have only Google Now.

The pro-Apple perspective is that by not relying on a rival to provide the most important mobile service, and one that traffics in massively personal information, Apple is using its “integration” of hardware, software and services to provide a better and more secure user experience.

Take your pick, fanboys.

Meanwhile, the material fact is that Apple is competing hard in the virtual assistant space. And the reason is clear: This is how mobile computing works in the post-PC, wearable-computing future.

A Cue-enhanced, Google Now like future version of Siri will be a dream app for the iWatch. You’ll feel a vibration on your wrist, glance down, and that curved-glass iCandy lashed to your wrist will give you monstrously relevant and timely notifications, nudging and guiding you throughout your day and giving you what the Pentagon used to call “total information awareness.”

If you want to use Google Now, you’ll have to pull the phone out of your pocket or switch to the nerdier Google smartwatch.

When the iWatch eventually ships, some of its ability to interrupt you with just the right information at just the right time will be based on technology that originated with Cue.

This is a great acquisition for Apple. It won’t give them anything they couldn’t have built themselves, but it will give it to them sooner.

Look for that iWatch announcement within the next year.

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  • ElVox

    Why are we calling Cue a Google Now-like product when it apparently came out a year before Google Now? Makes no sense to me.

  • Angeluskarl

    Imagine if the iWatch trademark was for the TV they might be working on???!!!

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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