Why are virtual assistant apps so shy?

The industry has been promising apps that interrupt us with important contextual information. So where are they?

We've been on the brink of a new relationship with our gadgets for years.

"Real soon now," we're told, mobile apps will interrupt us with personalized information we never asked for. These interruptions would show us opportunities ("Those shirts you like are half-off at the store around the corner"), facilitate our social lives ("Your friend Janet is also visiting New York and is free for lunch -- would you like to invite her?") and save our bacon ("You haven't ordered a flower delivery for your anniversary -- would you like me to take care of it?").

What are they waiting for?

Apple's Siri responds impressively but doesn't take the initiative to interrupt much.

MindMeld is supposed to ship to general availability an app that churns out information related to your video conversations. The technology and platform look impressive, but the purpose of MindMeld's proof-of-concept app will be context for conversations, not mobile personal assistance.

EasilyDo is supposed to give you predictive results, but like most in this category, you have to work for it. The results are a fraction of what you want, actually harvesting data from social networks, calendars and location-oriented databases and placing them in a stream.

EasilyDo performs a wide variety of useful tasks like contacting people for you, telling you when to leave for your meeting, getting directions, automatically creating new contacts and many other things. EasilyDo automates tasks to simulate a personal assistant, but it doesn't do anything you haven't specifically commanded it to do. It doesn't interrupt you proactively with contextual information beyond things like telling you to leave for your next meeting.

Osito is another cool app that suffers from the same lack of creative interruption as EasilyDo. It's more of a rollup of the kinds of information you can get elsewhere, but presented in a stream with some pop-ups. It's more about automation than contextual assistance.

Foursquare just got interesting. The company rolled out a test version of Foursquare that throws advice and context at you when you walk into a restaurant or around a neighborhood. ("Try the cheese fries in this place -- they're incredible.")

Checking in isn't required. In fact, the information will pop up even if the Foursquare app isn't running. Now that's what I'm talking about.

Sadly, the test is for 2,000 lucky Android users only, with a wider rollout promised for an unspecified future. Foursquare tested a comparable feature called "Radar" two years ago, but killed it after "Radar" killed battery life.

Google Now has by far the best proactive interruption in the business, if you have an Android device.

Google Now grabs information about you from Gmail, Google Search and elsewhere, and uses that data to improve results.

Lately, Google has folded in some amazing capabilities. For example, it preemptively feeds you information about your car rentals, public transportation information based on guesses about where you might want to go, movie tickets and sports scores.

Google Now tells you more information about whatever's on screen. It knows what you're watching because, with your permission, it listens to the sound of the show to figure out what you're watching.

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