The future is contextual computing, right? We keep being told that is the bright, shiny thing to look forward to. Wake up in the morning, and all the apps on my phone know what I want. My music app has the perfect playlist to start my day, my news app has information from sources I find reliable, and my social networks have a few suggestions for some information I may have missed overnight that could be cool. When I get home from work, my video apps know what I want to watch and can point me towards some new things in the event that I don't have anything new to watch that night.
It's a cool idea for a future, but right now none of my apps are anywhere close to delivering on that promise. And if I'm being honest, this horrible in-between stage is making my phone a lot less fun.
As is often the case with my phone, this all started with Google. I had a friend from out of town who wanted to get food somewhere new, and so I fired up Maps to grab a list of local eats. I got ratings for a few decent places, we picked one, and all jumped in the same car to go grab a bite. On the five-minute drive to the pub, we passed three restaurants that weren't anywhere in Google's list. Each looked like solid options for exactly the thing we were looking to do, but were nowhere to be found in Google's suggestions. The reason, as near as I could find, was because these restaurants didn't participate in Google's partnership program for listings on Maps. I could find these restaurants if I searched for them individually, complete with links to menus, but these listings didn't appear in Google's recommendation engine no matter what I did.
Hulu was the next thing that day to totally miss the mark. The new UI for Hulu is supposed to be built to suggest things to me I want to watch, and one would assume that engine is at least somehow based on things I have watched. But when season three of The Path hit Hulu, the app did absolutely nothing to tell me it was available to watch. In fact, by the time I had found it on my own, I was several episodes behind. This sort of thing should be a slam dunk for Hulu, to tell me the next season of a Hulu Original show I have already started watching is available to watch. Instead Hulu wants to suggest that I start watching Bob's Burgers, a show I have already watched in its entirety on Hulu, from Episode One.
Most of this is, in one way or another, a form of growing pains.
After both of these apps managed to fail me so spectacularly on the same day, I went looking for a recommendation system on any app on my phone that worked the way I wanted it to. Google Play Music suggested three of its radio stations, each filled with songs that have nothing to do with the original artist suggested to me. Amazon's suggestion system for things I like isn't even close. The Play Store suggests games to me I would never play. Twitter is constantly suggesting I follow politicians and celebrities and other people that have nothing to do with any of my normal activity on that site. Facebook has started sorting my notifications by what it thinks I want to see, which has making it an even bigger dumpster fire. Basically, everything with some sort of machine learning thing and the promise of a better way to show me what I might want sucks. The only app I found with any kind of accuracy was Netflix, and that's almost not fair because my family watches basically everything Netflix makes these days.
Most of this is, in one way or another, a form of growing pains. None of these recommendation systems were ever going to work perfectly overnight, but most of these seem to fail in really obvious ways right now. And to be honest, Google needs to be scrutinized more heavily that most here. With the announcement of Google I/O 2018 recently dropped, it's important to keep in mind we're almost a year into Google's promise to devote its machine learning and AI empire to creating a personalized Google just for you. Outside of watching Google Now die on the vine so Assistant can rise, it's not entirely obvious to me how Google has gotten any closer to delivering on this promise after a year, and that's from the perspective of someone who uses Google for almost everything day in and day out.
If Google is supposed to be a leader in this space, the example for every other company to follow, it's hardly surprising so many of these services aren't able to deliver what has been promised.