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Sherpa treks into view as new answer to Google Now on iOS

Predictive intelligence apps are all the rage as of late. Will Apple acquire one?

New predictive intelligence app Sherpa.
New predictive intelligence app Sherpa.

The launch of Google Now last year pointed a new way forward for search, as Google could begin predicting the information its users sought before they even thought to type a query. Traffic, weather, sports scores and more began materializing on phones running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and above, with the company promising that many more kinds of information are on the way.

To date, there has been no iOS equivalent -- which prompted a war of words between Google and Apple last week, after Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt suggested that Apple was holding up the app in its App Store approval process. The closest cousin that Google Now has on iOS is Grokr, which surfaces the usual traffic and weather information along with breaking news, place recommendations and trending topics from around the Web.

Personally, I found Grokr to be a bit too noisy with its push notifications, which frequently pointed me to "news" stories that didn't quite meet the definition. (Thanks but no thanks, "Top 7 moments from 'The Vampire Diaries'.")

That's why I'm eager to check out Sherpa, a free new predictive intelligence app launching today in private beta. Built by a six-person team in Palo Alto, the company raised $1.1 million funding from investors including Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. It is a graduate of the AngelPad startup incubator.

Sherpa founder and CEO Bill Ferrell.
Sherpa founder and CEO Bill Ferrell. Sherpa

Sherpa was founded by Bill Ferrell, a former Googler who focused on improving the relevance of search ads. He's taken the same approach to predictions to build Sherpa, which takes a user's current location and uses it to surface the most relevant information it can find.

The app's core feature set will be familiar to anyone who has seen Google Now. It can alert you to changes in the weather, to upcoming calendar appointments, and to changes in traffic conditions. On your way to the airport, it will pull up your confirmation number. When you arrive at your destination, it will pull up your hotel reservation.

But the app can handle some trickier tasks, too. Ferrell likes to give the example of the "piano lesson." The first time you drive to the lesson after installing Sherpa, Sherpa will associate "piano lesson" with that location. The second you drive to the lesson, it remembers the location, pulls up the directions for quick reference, and tells you if you need to leave early because of traffic. Sherpa does all that without you ever entering an address into your phone. It's a nifty trick.

Just as important to Sherpa's approach is what it doesn't do. It doesn't recommend restaurants, or send news headlines and sports scores, making it feel less like a carnival barker than its competitors. And while the app accesses the calendar (if the user allows it), Sherpa doesn't use it as the starting point for everything it does -- unlike the popular new app Tempo, a "smart calendar" that also finds directions and related e-mails based on your upcoming events.

"The most obvious reason is that there's so much in your life that isn't on your calendar," Ferrell said. "Calendars are great for people who fit a certain kind of work profile. But not every person does. If we want to move to a model where my phone says, 'Hey Bill, this is the thing you need,' you have to move away from the calendar."

In time, Sherpa plans to let third-party developers build integrations into its feed, which will allow it to start making money. But as Google Now becomes a bigger part of Android, it's not hard to imagine Apple deciding to build predictive intelligence into iOS. Maybe they'll build it in-house -- or maybe they'll acquire an app like Sherpa.

The private beta launches today. It will be open to the general public in the coming weeks, the company says.