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Osito for iPhone: can this minimalist Google Now clone make a splash before the real thing?

Osito for iPhone: can this minimalist Google Now clone make a splash before the real thing?

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There is no shortage of Google Now clones for iPhone, but none of them successfully emulate Google's concise and tasteful representation of data. Tempo focuses too much on being a "smart" calendar, cluttering your screen with email attachments related to your events, while Grokr soils results with restaurant recommendations. Osito, a free app launching today for iPhone, wants to do the opposite: provide you with only the most essential information like flight status, traffic updates, and an address for your hotel when your flight lands. Like Google Now, Osito plugs into your location, calendar, and Gmail to provide alerts and updates — all within familiar design sensibilities iOS users have been clamoring for.

"Our app doesn't need to be on your home screen."

Osito is all about "predictive intelligence," according to CEO Bill Ferrell, a former Googler who worked on search ad quality. The app examines both your calendar and your location to figure out where you need to be and how long it will take you to get there. But even if your weekly piano lesson appointment isn't attached to a location, Osito can figure out where you're going after a few trips and alert you if there's traffic next time. At launch, Osito helps with several very specific things based on location and the time: your flight status and online check-in, a hotel reservation alert when your flight lands, traffic alerts for your commute or next appointment, and alerts when it's going to rain. Each alert offers "next step" buttons like online flight check in, directions, and weather forecasts. If you compare Osito's primary functionalities with Google Now's, the lists are nearly identical.

Osito for iPhone screenshots


But there's another side to Osito that's much larger in scale than sending traffic alerts. Ferrell plans to open up Osito to third-party developers and provide easy access to your location, if you choose to allow it. Ferrell hacked together a "trigger" so when Osito detects that he has arrived at work, lava lamps turn on around the office. "What we've really built is a trigger system for information based on your location," Ferrell says. A Google Now-esque interface is simply the first implementation of how you might want to use that data. You can imagine future integrations where Osito's API ties in with IFTTT to text your spouse when you've arrived at work or send a tweet when you're on the way home. You could set up Foursquare to ping you with recommendations when you land in a new city. "Our app doesn't need to be on your home screen," Ferrell says, and the company's future plans are a testament to that. But today, Osito feels more like Google Now.

"What we've really built is a trigger system for information based on your location."

Osito is still in its early stages, and the app's performance reflects that. During the two weeks I tested Osito, I received very few notifications from the app aside from alerts that it was about to start raining. Even though I took a few flights during the two-week period, Osito didn't recognized my semi-obscure travel agent company's emails as flight confirmations, and thus didn't add my flights. The app also didn't alert me about any traffic, but that's because I take the subway to work. "It's important that we don't send you information that's not relevant," Ferrell says. "We tried to be careful and only bite off a little at a time, and invest very heavily in platform behind the scenes."

While Osito isn't fully fleshed out, it avoids the pitfalls of many apps that burden you early on with their overzealous mistakes. Where other "assistant" or "ambient location" apps pester you with information, Osito might err on providing too little information, and that's not a bad thing for version one. "You don't need to think about us," Ferrell says. "We might not have something to tell you today, whether it's the first day or hundredth day of using Osito," and he's OK with that. The last thing we need is one more push notification buzzing our phones, but with Osito installed, you know it will be an important one. While it might not quench your thirst for a Google Now for iOS, it's the next best thing until the real deal hits the App Store.