Contextual features that use information such as time of day and your location are becoming increasingly important on smartphones today. Today’s smartphones know where you are, where you’re going, who you’re with, and what you like to do. After years and years of claims from smartphone companies and app makers that they’d take advantage of all that information, we’re finally beginning to see a wave of apps that actually make good on those promises. Google Now was just one of many high-profile examples, and Apple’s Today view is another. Just last week, Aviate launched with a completely customizable home screen based on your location and the time of day.
Today, a new entrant wants to bring that same kind of context to your lock screen. Cover, the product of ex-Facebook, Google, and Yahoo engineers, replaces your default Android lock screen with one that knows where you are and what time of day it is to provide you with quick shortcuts to the apps you use the most in each scenario. For instance, when you are at work, Cover might put Gmail, Calendar, and Dropbox icons right on your lock screen, while at home it might replace those with Netflix, YouTube, and Sonos apps. The system learns your behavior, and after a few days of use, it puts the most used apps at the top of its vertical list. More apps are available by swiping on the right side of the display.
Plenty of third-party lock screens, and even ones from manufacturers such as HTC and Samsung, have offered shortcuts to your most-used apps, but Cover can change those shortcuts dynamically throughout the day. Cover also features a unique "Peek" function that lets you see the contents of an app without fully unlocking your screen, and it has an app-switching function for when you’re already past your lock screen.
Cover pulls in your location and time of day to provide quick access to your most-used apps
Todd Jackson, lead designer of the app and the CEO and co-founder of Cover, tells us that Cover's goal is to present you with "the right apps at the right time." He notes that the company didn’t want to replace users’ home screens, since so many people are attached to the layout and widgets they've already put there. Instead, Cover sees the lock screen as a new frontier, something that can be improved to provide better functionality without disrupting the experience that users have become accustomed to.
There has been a good amount of discussion about app developers choosing iOS over Android at launch, with much of it centered around ease of development and greater opportunity for profit on iOS. Jackson acknowledges this, but also points out that an app like Cover simply wouldn’t be possible on iOS. "There’s an opportunity to shine on Android while other developers focus on iOS," he says. "Our goal is to build the best Android team out there." To do that, Cover is betting the company on Android — it doesn’t plan to develop for other platforms anytime soon.
"Our goal is to build the best Android team out there."
Cover is a good start. We’ve been testing it on a number of Android smartphones, and performance is impressive; scrolling is smooth, the app is quick and responsive, and it doesn’t use a whole lot of resources, even with its Peek and quick app-switching features. It's also pretty smart at identifying when you're at home, work, or elsewhere. "It wasn’t easy to optimize the app for performance," notes Jackson, echoing things we’ve heard from other Android developers, including Facebook. He says the team used their experience in developing games to make Cover as responsive as possible, while still conserving device resources. The app was built from scratch in a mere seven months.
There’s still room for improvement, however, and Jackson says that the team’s focus was getting the core features right in version 1.0 before adding more and expanding functionality in later versions. Right now, the app is most useful for right-handed people — all of the gestures and layouts work best using your right thumb. It’s not possible to pin or customize the app shortcuts on the lock screen (that is a planned feature in Cover’s roadmap), and there’s plenty of empty space that can be used for things such as upcoming calendar appointments and message previews. The app-switching feature is more useful on devices like the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4, where Android’s native multitasking menu has been buried under long presses or altered completely. The swipe gesture to activate it can also interfere with getting to your settings from the notification tray.
Additionally, there are security concerns with contextual apps such as Cover; after all, it knows your location and what you do and then processes all of that data to make it work better. Jackson says that all data sent to and from your phone to Cover’s servers is encrypted, and users have the option to provide their email address or not. If you do provide Cover with your email address, the app will sync across multiple devices, but opting out of giving up your information doesn’t restrict any features on a single device.
Cover doesn’t plan to stop with your lock screen. The company sees a number of areas to innovate on Android, including using contextual data for security purposes. Today, they are launching Cover at coverscreen.com with a wait list, which Jackson says is necessary to properly test the recommendation features with real-world users. The app is free and doesn’t have any freemium features or ads at this time. Jackson claims that Cover’s priority is to offer a great user experience now and figure out monetization later.
Contextual data is the next frontier in mobile technology
Working with contextual data is the next logical area for software and app developers to go, and there are a lot of players in this space already. Our smartphones have all of the pieces of data needed, but making them work together is another story. Cover is an interesting app, and while it still needs work, it does do a few things well. But Apple, Google, and all of the other big players in mobile technology are working in this very same area (a look at some of Apple's and Google’s recent acquisitions gives us an idea of how serious they are), and they have bigger teams and deeper pockets than small startups when it comes to figuring out how to make contextual data work. Still, Cover is ambitious, and if it’s able to push the big guys into adopting some of its ideas, it’s a win for everyone.