I know, I know: these days it seems like nearly everyone and their mother is trying to cash in on the mobile messaging app craze. And at first glance, a new Android messaging app called Emu seems like just another claimant to the throne.
It’s not. It’s much, much better. Rather than try to build a new online messaging platform from scratch and then agonize over ways to make it stand out amid a sea of competitors, Emu co-founders Gummi Hafsteinsson and Dave Feldman* decided to take a stab at making our run-of-the-mill SMS conversations smarter.
To hear them tell it, the process of actually getting things done via SMS is an awfully tedious one. Let’s say you’re trying to set wrangle up a friend up to go to the movies with you — it sounds straightforward enough, but there are plenty of sub-steps to tackle if you break it all down. What movie are you going to see? Better fire up that Fandango app. Are both of you free next Thursday? A quick peek at your calendar app should clear that up.
You get where I’m going. Meanwhile, at first glance, Emu doesn’t seem like much more than a handsome replacement for the stock Android SMS app. And hey, if that’s all Emu wound up being, it’d still probably find a following. But Emu’s special sauce comes in the form of information pop ups that appear in your messaging stream when it detects certain snippets of conversation.
You see, the application quietly monitors your conversation and chews on that corpus in search of time, location, and action triggers. If you text a friend to ask if they want to see Gravity, a list of nearby theaters and showtimes will appear. Ditto for restaurants, except it’s OpenTable listings that appear in your feed. And once the conversation starts turning to times, your calendar entries for the span of a few hours pops up to make sure you’re not double booking yourself. Emu is also smart enough to keep track of information that appeared earlier in your exchange — if you first asked your friend if they were free next Friday, listings for that day would be the ones to pop up.
The app has been chugging along in beta for the past few weeks now, and early users only had access to two of the more rudimentary features — the aptly named Marco Polo feature let users share their locations (which are no longer visible after 30 minutes), and a sort of Mailbox-esque burying feature that lets user temporarily archive incoming messages.
Curiously enough, neither of them originally wanted to make a messaging app considering the inevitable comparisons to other competitors. But the more they pondered, the more sense it made.
“If we want to be this ambient assistant,” Feldman noted, “Why not do it where people are already talking?”
The overarching Emu vision is an awfully ambitious one. Eventually they want Emu to process and facilitate all of the conversations on your phone, whether they’re conducted over voice calls, email, or text messages. And even broader than that, they’re hoping to popularize the notion of building these smart assistants into applications beyond your phone.
This may all sound a little outlandish, but co-founder Hafsteinsson isn’t exactly a stranger to building digital assistants — after a run as a Google product manager he went on to become VP of Product at Siri back when its flagship product was the namesake app. Meanwhile, Feldman (a former AOLer who worked on TC’s last big redesign) tackled the app’s UX and ultimately came up with a clean, easy to use design that certainly nets Emu some style points.
Emu certainly isn’t the only startup trying to bake contextually aware assistants into new things either — Disrupt alum Expect Labs has been snapping up capital from the likes of Samsung Ventures and Telefonica to see its own approach to surfacing information before users even know they need it. If these guys have their way, we may soon enter the age of the omnipresent assistant carefully offering data that aligns with our needs. Until then, you can check out Emu for yourself here.
*Disclosure: Dave Feldman was formerly an EIR at CrunchFund, which was created by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. But none of that has anything to do with how I found out about Emu, or why I think it’s so cool.