Poll: Should iOS 9’s Proactive make privacy compromises to better rival Google Now?

I was genuinely excited when my colleague Mark Gurman revealed iOS 9’s Proactive — Apple’s competitor to the Android assistant Google Now — because it sounded like something that would radically improve my daily iPhone use. “Like Google Now,” Mark said, “Proactive will automatically provide timely information based on the user’s data and device usage patterns,” details Apple confirmed when it officially announced Proactive at WWDC. Google Now’s success made an Apple response inevitable: who wouldn’t want an iPhone that correctly anticipated your needs, reducing your time spent manually hunting for information?

But unlike Google, which Apple CEO Tim Cook has portrayed as a miner of personal data for “God-knows-what advertising purpose,” Apple has positioned itself as a champion of user privacy. As such, Proactive apparently doesn’t use cloud servers to process your personal data, which Google has done to great effect. Instead, iOS processes data directly on your device, so its scope — whatever your device is holding — and utility are a lot more limited. Consequently, the iOS 9 beta version of Proactive doesn’t do much; its features could have appeared on the annual WWDC slide that flashes 50 new iOS additions on screen for less than a minute before disappearing.

Readers, I’d like to ask you a question. We’ve seen what Google and third-party developers are currently doing with Google Now cards, and it’s pretty awesome — everything from helping you manage commutes (like Proactive) and trips (way beyond Proactive) to finding TV shows, scheduling return taxi rides, and sending birthday greetings. My question: would you rather see Apple slowly iterate on Proactive as it sorts through each new feature’s privacy implications, or tackle Google Now with a bolder and more powerful Proactive, privacy be (mostly) damned? A poll is below…


Because it’s so device-dependent, Proactive currently feels more like a collection of small parlor tricks than a major new feature. One tweak creates a shortcut to the Music or Podcasts app when you plug in headphones, routing you to something you left off playing before. Another cross-references your emails against incoming calls so you can guess who’s calling even without a contact on file. And the most visible feature uses your location to suggest nearby places to visit, and show you news headlines popular with people around you.

Proactive primarily lives in the former Spotlight search location, where you are presented with a list of recent contacts, app suggestions, a collection of nearby things you might want to do at a given time of day, and a handful of recent news articles. Unfortunately, over the weeks I’ve been using Proactive, very little in this collection has been useful to me, even though I read news and use apps every day. The app recommendations are almost thoughtless and the nearby recommendations are repetitive and mechanical; I don’t feel like either my device usage or the data I’m willing to share with Apple are being processed well. My favorite Proactive feature, a Lock Screen computation of the travel time to my next calendar event’s destination, has been great as a reminder to leave, but not as an accurate estimate of driving time — it’s usually significantly off for some reason.

Google’s philosophy with Google Now was essentially that people would love the results of processing their emails and data, and get used to the privacy tradeoffs. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that some people agree entirely with Google. Even so, the Google Now web site says that “you control the settings that determine the information provided,” implicitly acknowledging that yes, data processing is being done, but you can turn off Google’s access to data you don’t feel comfortable sharing.

Apple has portrayed Google’s “let us go through your mail and make your life easier” approach as creepy, and suggested that Google Now-like services are only worth adding to iOS if the user’s data remains private. Of course, some people agree with Apple. But there’s another possibility: trust Apple with your data, because Apple (thus far) hasn’t appeared to be as willing to exploit user data for unspecified purposes as Google.

How would you prefer to see Proactive evolve? Register your opinion in the poll below, and share comments if you have them!

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  1. Seth Weintraub - 8 years ago

    Should be Opt-in. Google’s is opt out which leave most people exposing everything because they don’t know or care

    • Randy Luecke (@me1000) - 8 years ago

      Google Now is very much opt-in.

      • Seth Weintraub - 8 years ago

        Now is opt in. Data collection is opt out

    • 89p13 - 8 years ago

      That’s exactly what my choice would be – I was upset at the limited number of choices in the poll, so I did not vote.

      • Leon Aves - 8 years ago

        What an odd thing to get upset about.

    • Chad Estes - 8 years ago

      When you set up an Android device, or Google Now for the first time, it asks you if you want to enable the feature. It’s actually opt-in.

  2. How about we wait and see how good it actually is.

    • Walter Tizzano - 8 years ago

      It’s not going to change much, the last beta changed almost nothing (user visible) from the previous one, so I don’t expect the next ones will change proactive or other big things.

      • Jeremy Horwitz - 8 years ago

        This is a solid statement of how Apple’s betas work. It’s extremely rare for features to change more than a little – apart from not working, then working – during the beta process. Some people seem to live in denial of this and make the same comment (‘wait until September’) every year. I have no doubt that Proactive will improve a little over the next year, but if it’s anything like virtually every other major new feature introduced into iOS, it’ll be another year until it really bears fruit.

  3. J.latham - 8 years ago

    I think it’s more of an issue with the interface rather than the service itself. But maybe it’s one of those things that maybe you need to try Google Now to get where it’s helpful that proactive isn’t.

  4. mikhailt - 8 years ago

    Apple is historically bad at services, I expect Proactive to be limited in its first iteration and to get better over time like Siri and Maps. I do expect Apple to maintain its privacy by default. If people like Google Now, they can go get Android.

  5. 89p13 - 8 years ago

    “Apple has portrayed Google’s “let us go through your mail and make your life easier” approach as creepy”

    It continues to make me the Google “Product” – which is yet another reason I limit my exposure to Google and vice versa.

  6. rogifan - 8 years ago

    It’s kind of hard to respond to this poll when most people haven’t even used proactive yet. Do we know the current limitations are all privacy related? Or is this a case of Apple wanting to start low so they don’t promise something they can’t deliver (right now)?

  7. Kaloyan (@kalo_angel) - 8 years ago

    at least you people get the feature, for half of us Europeans it’s just a second empty search (srsly apple, if it’s not going to work why have it in the first place)

  8. rafalb177 - 8 years ago

    What is Google Now?

  9. Walter Tizzano - 8 years ago

    I was very disappointed by proactive; it seemed like a very promising feature, but it’s pretty much useless so far. I wouldn’t mind sharing some data with Apple to get a better and more useful service :)

  10. rrcamp - 8 years ago

    This poll seems a bit precipitous, as almost no one is using iOS 9 yet since it hasn’t been generally released. I suggest you might get a better and more informed response if you ask this question after the release.

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 8 years ago

      It’s in public beta. And it’s just a poll to gauge early opinions.

  11. Greg Wiley - 8 years ago

    I think the poll wording was a bit off. Apple is the one I distrust. It would be government / law enforcement search that could be problematic. If Apple doesn’t have it, they have nothing to give.

  12. jxslepton - 8 years ago

    I thought the app suggestions would be based on your location usage behaviors. It seems like it just shows your most recently used apps. The Nearby feature doesn’t seem really that helpful either.

    google now seems to be more useful so far.

  13. Kai Cherry - 8 years ago

    Why are you ‘reviewing’ a feature that is *clearly not* finished? perhaps you should read the Developer Docs and Apple-Provided info about how it works, how the integrations work, etc?

    I’m not sure what value this piece is meant to provide: “Currently under development feature is currently incomplete, doesn’t do what Apple said at WWDC yet.”


    • Jeremy Horwitz - 8 years ago

      This was not a review (even in air quotes) and nothing above said that it didn’t do what Apple mentioned at WWDC. It’s a poll asking readers whether the conceptual scope of Proactive, limited by on-device processing and arguably unnecessary privacy considerations, should be freed of those limitations to make the feature a stronger competitor to Google Now. Another way of putting this: did Apple already take the right approach to challenging Google Now, or should it change direction because its users don’t care about privacy that much?

      • Kai Cherry - 8 years ago

        My point is, knowing *how* it works and is meant to, the poll is simply pre-mature. A lot of the functionality relies on 3rd-Party apps making changes that can’t be tested by people running the betas because apps that hook into this (new) ecosystem aren’t available to enrich it. But the things that are wholly Apple-dependent that are baked already are working fine – predictive trip estimates, auto-suggestions of events, richer Siri results, etc. You can’t get more relevant 3rd Party stuff and “deep linking” because we, as developers, can’t ship anything yet that would work, as well as other requirements that can’t yet be met.

        Look, I (generally) like 9-to-5 but, honestly, as of late in an attempt to be less…”positive”/”fanyboy-ish” I feel you guys are sometimes on the edge of manufacturing ‘controversy’…and I am certain I am not the first or only person to notice this…

      • Jeremy Horwitz - 8 years ago

        Asking people for their opinions (even early, when those opinions are merely based on publicly announced functionality and a public beta) isn’t manufacturing controversy. And you’re trying to turn a simple poll into something it’s not (“reviewing a feature”). Just relax – it’s just people talking on a web site, not the end of the world.

        [Seriously – does it really matter so much to you if other people opine on something before iOS 9.0 goes completely final? Is everyone else allowed to start having opinions if iOS 9 goes final before all of the third-party features you’re expecting appear? When is it acceptable to talk about this, in your view?]

  14. John Smith - 8 years ago

    Personally I don’t want what are effectively advertisements, disguised as ‘helpful suggestions’ popping up all the time nor do I want every detail of my life shared with some corporation.

    But Apple should go ahead with this for those who want it.

    Just include a nice simple switch – off by default – so people can have it or not. Apple already has a good record on that for several other facilities on IOS and OS X

  15. willo (@mozfart) - 8 years ago

    First step in harnessing the power of cloud AI with protected AI is some sort of client side data exchange. That simply encrypts, anonymises, uploads, processes for AI in cloud, then back to client.

    That would enable Apple to offer deep machine learning AI to Apple Users worldwide without taking away your privacy.

    In Photos: “Auto keyword photos” -> Then show what is going on in a window – get all the Cloud AI keywords after analysing photos, then add the keywords. No data was harnessed, and no privacy was violated.

    There is a ton of stuff cloud AI can do for all apps which would be great, but I don´t my private information associated with that data while processing. So make a protected data exchange client side, and open backend up for cloud AI processing. It´s a win-win.

    Googles approach seem to be the complete opposite; they want AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE of private data associated with IMEI,UUID,cookies,IPs,MAC-addresses,etc. They want to create a information bank so vast it knows just about everything, then sell access to that data to generate revenue.

    I say Apple is doing us all a big favour by putting Privacy front and center. Now it´s time to build on that foundation with anonymised encrypted data given access to huge data centres providing deep machine learning cloud AI to enhance our daily digital lives.

  16. Joe Wilks - 8 years ago

    I voted ‘No’ just because I think there should be a consumer choice in the market. If you don’t want your data shared, there’s a product for that. If you’re fine with your data being shared, there’s a product for that too.
    If Apple started using user data like Google, that choice would be far more limited. Companies shouldn’t just do things because all the other companies are doing it. Sometimes, one should think different.

  17. Leif Paul Ashley - 8 years ago

    It’s not out yet, period. And very very few here use an Android device and hence have yet to experience the full Google Now service.

    I think proactive gets close for now, I certainly wouldn’t opt for Google Now over proactive, unlike I do Maps. But no, Apple isn’t Google and doesn’t have the AI cloud processing to do many of the things from Google IO with Android M.

    However I can actually get iOS 9 when it comes out compared to my droid devices that will get it God knows when, except the Nexus of course. Tradeoffs.

  18. cafesitter - 8 years ago

    @Jeremy when you say travel time works as reminder is it still limited to iCloud calendar like in iOS8? Exchange wouldnbe great news to me. Sorry if slightly off your main privacy topic…

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 8 years ago

      I’m honestly not sure, as I don’t use Exchange. Travel time does come up even without iCloud calendar use, though, when you’re away from home. An “XX minutes to home” note will pop up on the lock screen.

  19. charilaosmulder - 8 years ago

    Apple’s promise that everything happens privately on-device is great and all, but I hate the re-introduction of something not app related on the app launcher (aka the home screen). Everything should have its own place. I’m glad they took the quick contacts out of the recent apps. Also like how quick settings were taken out of the recent apps in iOS7 and put in their own place (Control Center).

    Functionality wise, I’m just afraid that Proactive won’t change much in our daily routines, as we’ll still have to do 99% of everything manually. Though I love the contact name prediction of phone numbers that aren’t in your contacts yet, it’s simple, subtle, helpful and doesn’t require you to do anything.