Points Of Convergence

I’ve been studying the Android operating system and ecosystem recently, out of boredom, and one thing struck me as very odd. That is, Google’s AI applies (or is supposed to apply) to Google’s services, but that is not necessarily the case for third parties.

For example, the Calendar app has an option to scan Gmail and extract event information (presumably using clever AI), which is then automatically added into your calendar. However, although the Android Gmail app can now comfortably connect with Microsoft Exchange servers, Android cannot touch email coming out from these.

This is not the case with iOS. Mail.app analyses all email, regardless of where it came from, applies the same algorithms to extract date information, and suggests events to add to the calendar (it will automatically add events if there is an attachment with the “.dat” extension). Mail.app can do this legitimately because everything is done on the device, without sending the emails to Apple servers. (Note that Google is still facing litigation regarding scanning of email for advertising purposes, which questions their scanning non-Gmail originating email.)

From a technical point of view, features like Google Now-on-Tap may allow Google to analyse data that resides in third party services. However, these third parties may be reluctant due to competitive concerns. Furthermore, privacy policies at least in Japan are very sensitive about sending data to other entities. I expect the same policies or at least expectations exist in many other countries as well, and the above Gmail litigation suggests that this is indeed the case.

This means that iOS will be able to analyse and learn (locally) from emails stored in third party servers like Microsoft Exchange, whereas Gmail will not. In other words, the iOS Mail.app can stand at the crossroads where information from multiple sources come together, and learn from each of them. The iOS Mail.app will be able to benefit from being at the point of convergence. On the other hand, Gmail will have to be separated and isolated.

Gartner has reported that only 4.7% of public companies use Gmail for work. This is based on email routing records, and is likely to be quite reliable. Therefore, in terms of the treasure trove of corporate email data, Gmail is mostly insignificant. For Google to really access this information, it most likely needs to move away from cloud computing and towards AI on the device, because the device is where the data converges.

The interesting to note here is that the point of convergence from a purely technical point of view, will not necessarily be where it will be in real life. Whereas technically it makes sense to accumulate all data in the cloud, privacy concerns alone could force convergence to occur solely on the device.

  • obarthelemy

    I’m unclear about one thing: when you say gCal can scan gMail but not Outlook, are you talking about servers, clients, or both ?

    The gMail (and the AOSP) client can get the mails off any POP, IMAP or Exchange server, so the difference does matter. If gCal can read Exchange mails off the gMail client, one could set up the gMail client to handle all mail, or set up gMail to download-erase Exchange mails just to get them through the scheduler. I also think gMail servers can siphon mails off Exchange servers.

    There’s also a 3rd (4th ?) level specific to your example: I think gCal and Exchange can use each other’s calendars, or at least sync them.

    • I have simply set up the Android Gmail client to read both mails from my Gmail account, and from my work Exchange account.

      I have set the Calender application to get events from Gmail. If as a result of this setting, the Gmail app is now sending my Exchange emails to Google servers and scanning them for advertising, I would be very alarmed.

      Since you bring this up, I will check this.

      • obarthelemy

        At least the option to link at the server level is available, if not really advisable.

        I’ve looked into it a bit:
        1- other apps are available that do reflect invites from Exchange mail or calendar in gCal ( http://forums.androidcentral.com/google-nexus-5/366399-exchange-email-calendar-invites.html )
        2- Google itself is “working on it” for Inbox at least, not sure about the gmail and AOSP clients. Or maybe they’ll release a umpteenth client that’ll do it ;-p
        ( https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!topic/inbox/WjIFAEmyXaI )

        Edit: BTW, some are worse than Google: I’m still on Yahoo Mail, and was looking to do a backup. Not possible. The only workaround is to install an IMAP client, sync all mails locally, and back that up. POP won’t even work because it doesn’t handle folders (on Yahoo).

        • The issue that you link to is probably a separate one; a simple bug. The links talk about event details send as attachments. “.ICS” files presumably. There is not AI necessary for handling those.

          As for backing up emails, I would presume that IMAP is the way to go too. POP isn’t that kind of protocol.

          • obarthelemy

            the second link is about scheduling AI in the client.

            I originally thought POP was a better fit since it duplicates emails instead of synching them. I’m fairly sure on some servers it handles folders too, just not on Yahoo.

            Edit: sorry the second isn’t about AI either, I must have goofed somewhere, I’ll check again later.

          • obarthelemy

            OK my bad, indeed there’s nothing client-side for now.

            I wouldn’t extrapolate too much from this though: for example Google’s voice assistant for Android started as server-based, and later added some client-side capabilities so it could work offline for some commands ( http://gadgets.ndtv.com/apps/news/google-now-gets-offline-voice-command-support-for-some-functions-report-745940 ).