Google acquired Emu, a mobile messaging app that combines an IM client with a virtual assistant that automatically completes tasks based on the contextual information it gleans from your conversations. Though Google isn’t disclosing how much it paid for Emu or how it plans to use the company’s technology, it’s likely that Emu’s software will soon be integrated into Google products like Google Now, Google Hangouts, or even its Android operating system.
Emu confirmed the acquisition on its website, where it said that the Emu iOS app will be shut down and removed from the App Store on August 25. The company was founded in 2012 by veterans of Siri, Apple, Google, TechCrunch, and Yahoo Messenger. Emu’s co-founder and CEO Gummi Hafsteinsson previously worked for Google and for Apple, where he worked on Siri.
Emu debuted as an Android app, and its website describes the Emu messaging product as “texting with a built-in assistant.” On the surface, it seems similar in functionality to Siri, Google Now, or other virtual assistants. But Emu uses machine learning and natural language processing to understand messages and automatically add relevant information. Emu can schedule meetings, make restaurant reservations, buy movie tickets, or share locations in real time.
The potential for Google lies in Emu’s ability to monitor what people are saying, and that technology could help Google to extend the presence and capabilities of Google Now, its personal assistant that can already get information on nearby events, find traffic information and directions, deliver the weather forecast, give reminders, or provide updates on sports events.
Google Now is available not only on Android, but also for iOS, for desktop, and (of course) even for Android Wear and Google Glass. Emu’s machine learning technology, particularly, could help Google Now deliver better contextual recommendations and information across all of those platforms.
But beyond the Google Now personal assistant, the Emu acquisition could also have implications for Google’s messaging product. Messaging is a new, high-stakes area of focus among big players like Google, Facebook, and Apple, and represents an area of particular focus in iOS 8. In its iOS 8 preview, Apple says that new features in the Messages app will include the ability to send voice messages, easy recording and sending of videos directly from Messages, better management of group messages, and even options for location sharing mid-conversation. As users spend more time on mobile devices and more time in mobile messaging apps, tech companies are expected to load more and more features into messaging apps, pushing it past its simpler origins.
In that vein, Google could apply Emu’s technology to Hangouts, its own instant messaging and video chat platform, which is the default IM service on Android phones and also in Gmail. Google Hangouts is expected to become a central hub for communications on Android, evolving into a more capable platform and the “home base” for mobile, as TechCrunch terms it. Imagining Google using Emu’s technology to intelligently add useful information to your conversations, it’s easy to see how messaging stands to become a much more comprehensive, even useful part of the mobile experience as Emu’s tech enables Google to automatically deliver useful information as users carry on conversations.
It’s also not a stretch of the imagination to realize that Google could easily use Emu’s monitoring tools to insert ads into the kinds of conversations where Emu would normally contribute listings of local restaurants, or show you nearby cafés if, in the course of a conversation, you mention “coffee.” Emu so far hasn’t used its monitoring tech to insert such ads into conversations, as it’s operated for two years on funding from a variety of venture capitalists. But alongside its delivery of local information or its automatic booking of restaurant information, Emu’s technology could show targeted ads and a pizzeria, for example, could pay to show up when users mention grabbing a pizza in their messages.
As many have been quick to point out, Google’s acquisition of Emu is the latest in its and other companies’ efforts to capture and profit from the information people share via the Internet and mobile devices. Google is able to use consumers’ search terms and their emails to target ads, but so far hasn’t been able to extend the same capability to users’ chats. The acquisition of Emu brings Google that capability, and could push it further if Emu’s technology is also integrated fully into the Android operating system. The technology could monitor text messages and use information from the user’s calendar or contact list to deliver more useful information (and serve more relevant ads.)
While Emu’s technology could make Google Now, Google Hangouts, and possibly the entire Android operating system smarter and more useful for consumers, it does stand to further complicate the matter of privacy. Most consumers are unhappy with the concept of all of their communications being analyzed by a third party, though many have resigned themselves to the fact that this analysis is likely to happen sooner or later. But for many, sharing their personal data with a tech company is widely regarded as the price to pay for using the service — a necessary trade for access to smarter apps and better services.