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Grokr brings Google Now-style search to the iPhone

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Can a startup know enough about you to deliver ambient information?


Grokr is launching a new app for the iPhone that promises to offer the same experience of useful, ambient information that Google is providing on Android with Google Now. It utilizes an interface based on cards (Grokr calls them "tiles") that automatically bubble up useful information based on a wide swath of data the company learns about you. If that doesn't sound enough like Google Now, you can mix in a "Knowledge Graph" that is aware of "entities" in the world and your interest in them.

The interface begins with a stacked list of informational tiles that are presented in a relatively static order. Traffic information is up top, followed up a local tile, and then there's a mix of weather, news, and topics that Grokr's algorithms believe might interest you. Unlike Google Now's minimalist looks, Groks mixes in color and most tiles can be expanded for more information.

The basic use case is the same: open it up occasionally to get information relevant to your location and your interests. You can also expect to get the occasional notification when warranted — like when traffic on the route home is particularly bad. Grokr also has search built in, and the results present themselves as tiles that you can keep or dismiss via small, drop-down menu boxes.

It's a decent first release for an app, but it does feel a bit like a Beta — there are some small places where the UI could use more swiping and less tapping. There are a few nice touches, though. On local search, for example, each result has a tiny compass that points to the location. I didn't see any ad content in this first version of Grokr, but some sort of "unintrusive" ad content will likely come later — perhaps in the form of more tiles.

It's essentially an iOS version of Google Now

It's essentially an iOS version of Google Now, but it's both less and (slightly) more powerful than what Google has created. Grokr's CEO, Srivats Sampath, didn't shy away from the comparison when demoing the app for us. But where Google collects its information about you from your web searches and Gmail, Grokr needs to resort to other means: your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles, your iTunes collection, and your in-app searches.

The ability to pull in information from your social graph gives Grokr a small advantage over Google Now, one which might become more important as the app learns more about you. In practice it takes quite a lot of work to provide the same experience that Google Now offer, and Grokr isn't there yet. Grokr surfaced information about bands in my music library that I don't care much about and sometimes got confused about which entities were which — thinking "Sparta" in my music library was a race and not the great band from El Paso, and that "Peruvian" was a genuine interest in the nation and not in local restaurants.

"The web is the resource of last resort"

Just as Google has built a Knowledge Graph, so too has Grokr — though it is aware of fewer entities. Where Google's database is built up from its knowledge of the web, Grokr follows a similar route to Wolfram Alpha, taking in mostly "structured" data sources that it can easily parse. "The web is the resource of last resort, it is so noisy," Sampath told us, and so Grokr prefers to point to data sources like Yelp, Flickr, Foursquare, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Giving this small startup access to your location, social network, and searches sounds daunting, but Grokr is promising to anonymize your personal information. Even so, you'll be trading off a very high level of trust for fair-to-middling functionality. The dream of your phone knowing what you want before you do isn't quite here yet, but the road between here and there is apparently (and perhaps necessarily) going to be paved with your personal information.

Grokr is free and will be available in the app store tomorrow.