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How to make mobile phones adapt to their users’ needs, rather than the other way around

Dawid Bilski

Ever noticed that no matter how smart your phone is, you still have to tell it what to do? You have to swipe through all those screens to get to the app you want, the maps don’t pop up when you’re in need of directions and you have to drag and set all the widgets you want on every page of the home screen. Entrepreneur Mark Daiss, his cousin Paul Montoy-Wilson and his friend William Choi, both of whom worked at Google, wanted something more from their phones. Rather than have to search for what they wanted, they wanted the phone to offer them that information, when they needed it and based on what they were doing at the time.

The three got together in 2011 to set up Thumbs Up Labs and, earlier this year, launched their first product that does just that. Called Aviate, it’s an Android-based mobile interface that intelligently organises your phone, taking contextual cues from the time of day, where you are and your app usage patterns. 

Here’s how it works. Once you install the app, Aviate automatically categorises your apps into collections such as music, news, productivity, restaurants etc and recommends new apps based on your download and usage patterns. “We wanted to simplify the experience for Android users,” explains 28-year-old Daiss. But that’s the baseline experience — as Daiss puts it, “the real vision of Aviate lies in the Spaces”. This is the home screen that changes automatically through the day, depending on the time and location. So, when you reach for the phone on waking up, tap the orange house icon at the top of your screen for the weather, a calendar and to-do apps. As you head for work, Aviate can detect you’re on the move and show traffic conditions and give directions to the office.

Reach your office, and the work Space gives you email, Google Calendar and Drive, among others. If you are shopping or out for a meal with your friends, you can pull down information from the red Space on what’s nearby, restaurant reviews and so on. “Aviate is intelligent. It detects your context throughout the day and shows you what’s appropriate,” says Daiss. 

Hot app

It may be the newest kid on the block but Aviate seems to be pretty popular already. In June, its alpha programme had so many people clamouring to join, the servers crashed. Since the app opened to private beta in October, users are being let in only by invitation. Still, Daiss says the app saw over 100,000 installations in the first week itself and “several users are signing up every minute”, which makes him confident that by next year, Aviate will have over 1 million users. That should come in handy when the company starts monetising its model — except that Daiss and his partners haven’t really thought about their revenue model yet. “Our investors have no expectation that we will figure out revenue any time soon,” says Daiss, adding that the $1.8 million Aviate raised in seed capital from Highland Capital Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, Freestyle Capital and Draper Associates was “just to grow and focus on the initial product”.

Still, he does have some ideas — people are willing to pay between 50 cents and $5 to get their apps installed, Daiss points out, and Aviate generates app installations through its recommendations. Another revenue source could be through directing people to different search services, for which Aviate would earn a fee each time.

Even if revenue isn’t an issue right now, Aviate does have its share of challenges. It’s already weathered one storm over whether the data collected by the app was truly secure — turned out, there was a flaw and the company had to work 36 hours non-stop to develop a patch for it. It’s inevitable that other issues will crop up, given how new the product is.  

Future perfect

While it may arguably be the most intelligent Android launcher, it’s still one of many. Persuading users to switch and getting to the top of the Play Store lists won’t be easy.  Daiss doesn’t seem worried, though. He’s focusing on the next items in his to-do list: launching the product in different languages and a version for tablets, and adding more context and Spaces to Aviate. “If someone plugs in their headphones or connects Bluetooth, the ‘listen’ Space should show up. About 30% of SMS is plans-related; we want to leverage that to find out what info users would want,” he says. With such a product, what will really help is if OEM handset makers ship their devices with the product embedded. “We’ve had several enquires already, including from India,” says Daiss. If that works out, Aviate could really fly.