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Phones should be better at predicting what we're about to do

Features like Samsung’s ‘screen off memo’ are the future — I hope

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Samsung Galaxy Note 5

I recently sold my Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and returned to an iPhone 6. With the Note 7, new iPhones, and new Nexus phones on the horizon, it just felt like the right time. I miss a lot about the Note 5 — the incredible screen, the bigger battery — but the thing I miss the most was one tiny feature: when you pull the stylus out of the phone, you can write and save a quick note without having to unlock or even turn on the screen.

The “screen off memo,” as Samsung calls it, was useful to me for the exact reason it was created: being able to scribble and save quick reminders. I’m terrible at remembering things, and I’ve found over the years that my best ideas are fleeting — I have to make an idea permanent the moment it appears or else there’s a great chance I’ll never think of it again, at least not with the same kind of clarity.

This was especially true at night. My best ideas — or maybe more accurately, my most self-critical thoughts — seem to come to me in those 10 minutes before I fall asleep at night. With the Note 5 near my bed I was able to jot these down quickly without waking up the phone and blasting my nearly resting eyes with the Super AMOLED screen. Now, to accomplish the same task, I have to unlock my iPhone, open up the notes app, and struggle to type down the idea while laying sideways in my bed.

Could I just leave a notepad by my bed? Sure, but I’m terrible enough at writing in broad daylight, let alone in the dark. And the benefit of scribbling down these notes on my phone is my phone goes everywhere with me. I’m just not in the habit of keeping notebooks on me at all times.

Samsung’s not the first to do this

So the Note 5 was great for taking notes. No surprise there. What strikes me as more important, though, is the action that triggers that feature. Samsung was smart enough to know that the majority of the time, when you pull the stylus out without having interacted with the phone, you’re going to want to use something like the “screen off memo.” The company took a predictable behavior and built a software feature around it, and I think that’s brilliant.

LG has done similar things this with its phones, too. Starting with the G Flex 2, you could take a selfie with the phone’s front-facing camera and, when you lowered the phone, it would automatically pull up that photo so you can see it. Lift the phone back up to eye level or higher and the camera interface activated again.

Another smart example of this isn’t at the system level, it’s — bear with me — the “battery saver” feature of Pokémon Go. In case you haven’t played: the battery-saver feature, when turned on, dims the screen and sound effects when you hold your phone upside down by your side. When you lift your phone upwards, the screen wakes back up. It’s similar to how your screen turns off when you lift your phone to your ear — it’s a simple thing, but it makes a pretty big difference.

The obvious problem with features like this is not everyone uses their devices in the same ways, or for the same reasons. But that shouldn’t stop companies from trying to leverage how predictable we are when it comes to how we use our phones in certain specific situations. To be fair, I don’t think it is stopping them — even Apple is dipping a toe into this with iOS 10 and its “raise to wake” feature — it just provides a significant challenge.

Planning features like this can be tricky

I would love if more companies worked this kind of behavioral software into the next few devices they make, especially considering how similar phones have become. The race to pack smartphones with the best specs is essentially over, good (or even great) mobile cameras are now easy to come by, and in many ways the overall software experiences of Android and iOS are just different takes on the same basic ideas. More software features like Samsung’s screen off memo could help bigger companies differentiate themselves from sub-$400 phones that are otherwise great.

Of course, just because it seems like a good idea to me doesn’t mean that behavioral software is the direction that the phone industry is headed. Samsung, LG, and others obviously think the next big selling point for smartphones is the ecosystem that surrounds them. Samsung has built out an entire suite of “Gear” products that play nicely with its high-end phones, and LG and Motorola are trying to sell customers on the idea of a “modular” smartphone that — with some more of your money — can become better than the version you started with.

That’s fine, but I want a smart-er phone, not just a smartphone — one that can use the sensors and tech inside to quickly crunch the numbers and figure out what I’m about to do before I do it. Until that happens, I think I’m going to start saving up for a Note 7.