We've all been there: There are just some days when the innocuous "ding" of a new email arriving in your inbox can bring disproportionate levels of dread. When it comes to booking appointments and coordinating work meetings, not everyone is lucky enough to have a PA on hand to take care of everything. But your smartphone isn't just a vehicle for bringing your messages and calendars into your pocket, it can actually be extraordinarily useful in arranging your schedule, and giving you more time to deal with the important things in life (such as lie-ins and cat videos.)
Voice-activated assistants come as part of the core OS on many phones nowadays. This realm of apps get to know you and your habits the more you use them, updating themselves accordingly and working more efficiently with time.
The best-known of these are Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Amazon's Alexa, but Google has just caught up with the release of Assistant (considered an extension of the Google Now app, although it’s likely these two apps will merge at some point). First unveiled at the Google conference in May, and launched in September, the voice-activated Assistant is found in Google’s Allo chat app and is also integrated into Google Home and its Pixel smartphone.
All four of these assistant apps are similar in functionality, and are able to discuss and answer basic questions about directions, weather, check up on your schedule, as well as factual questions (eg "What time is sunset?").
However, where Assistant is trying to pull ahead of the pack is by drawing all the information it knows about you into one place, and stop the need to bounce around different browsers and apps when you’re getting a series of tasks done. For example, while you're chatting about dinner on Allo, it can tell you what restaurants are nearby. If you mention sushi, it can pick out only Japanese restaurants, and then go on to tell you when you've got a suitable gap in your calendar. Assistant doesn't yet work with third-party services, but this integration is an update that should come with time.
Perssist is an app that lets you outsource your nagging to-dos to real people. Add a job (calling customer service, ordering flowers to be delivered to a loved one, doing price comparison on a certain item, planning an excursion in a certain location), and have it done for the bargain price of US$13 per hour. Time is money, after all.
Mezi is a multipurpose assistant app for iPhone that has a series of shopping and travel bots to help you with buying a range of things, from travel and event tickets to hotel reservations, as well as clothes and gifts. For example, if you’re looking to buy a gift for a friend’s birthday, give the relevant Mezi bot your budget and your desires and it will make a range of suggestions, before finalising the purchase you decide upon.
Taking all of this to the next level of interaction is Amy by X.ai. Amy is an assistant that lives in your inbox, and is activated by cc-ing email@example.com into an email chain when you're arranging a meeting. Amy will then take over your email chain and do the "tedious email ping pong" with the other person. Amy will consider your preferences based on language (suggesting a beer, for example, will result in a post-work arrangement). There’s currently a big waitlist for the free version, but you can move up the queue by sharing news about Amy on social media. There’s also a paid plan, from US$39/month.
And this is just part of the general trend for building-in “smarts” to your everyday apps. One example worth checking out is Google Inbox. An app that manages your email, it suggests "smart replies" when you send emails, meaning you have less to type.
IFTTT is an interesting app for most platforms, which creates "applets", based on certain rules and conditions that you give it. For example, you could instigate an applet that will automatically connect you to a certain WiFi network each time you're in a particular location. You could ask it to save all your tagged Facebook photos on Dropbox automatically, give you a heads up when it’s about to rain, or mute your phone when you get to work. These are the simplest ways to use IFTTT - the possibilities are near-endless, as you can connect several services together and create your own unique applets.