Goodbye, Donna? What’s Next for the Accomplished Virtual Meeting Assistant?

PC World published an article yesterday by Mark Hachman (@markhachman) indicating that Incredible Labs had been purchased by Yahoo.  According to the article, the Donna personal assistant app will be removed from the appstore and the service will be discontinued.

Screen shot 2013-04-11 at 7.48.23 PMI wrote about Donna last April. At around the same time, Robert Scoble, Startup Liaison Officer at Rackspace, did an interview with Kevin Cheng, CEO and Co-Founder of Incredible Labs. It’s interesting to watch the video now and to listen closely to what Cheng  was trying to accomplish with Donna.

Their strategy was to create a virtual personal assistant that was very accomplished at a small number of specific use cases, rather than try to deliver an assistant that tried to do a lot of things, but did them all poorly. Listening to Zheng, you get the sense that he puts a lot of emphasis on the term “assistant.” Incredible Labs wanted their mobile assistant app to really help people and give them the feeling that they were being taken care of (maybe even spoiled?) by an extremely competent personal helper. The app was named after Donna Moss of The West Wing precisely because her character was so reliable and helpful.

The Donna app’s primary focus area was meetings. Many of its features were designed to remind you about upcoming meetings and assist you in getting to them on time. To do this, she’d have to take into consideration where the meeting was, what mode of transportation you planned to use to get there, and any external factors, like traffic and weather. Donna also had the capability to remind you of a conference call and dial you into it. I never used Donna, but it seems that she was really good at helping people manage their meetings. From the Zheng interview, I get the sense that Incredible Labs knew they couldn’t make a Donna Moss-like assistant to encompass all aspects of our lives. So they set out to build the most capable meeting assistant possible (a narrow domain) and provide lots of features that supported that specific function.

It’s probably not surprising that Incredible Labs was acquired. It might be a little surprising that Yahoo was the buyer. If Donna will no longer be available, does that signal that Donna’s assistant capabilities will be integrated into Yahoo Mail (as Mark Hachman speculates in the PCWorld article)? And if so, what domain beyond meeting assistant will Zheng and the other bright minds from Incredible Labs choose to drill into? I guess we’ll find out eventually. I do like the Incredible Labs strategy of honing in on specific use cases that are delivered in a comprehensive, fully formed manner. Many virtual personal assistants that I try out seem superficial, so to work with one that’s a true specialist in just one or two areas can be more satisfying. Will Yahoo use Donna’s capabilities, expand on them, or let them fade into oblivion? Only time will tell.

Yahoo Working With Robin Labs On Intelligent Assistant App?

RobinTechcrunch reported last week that Yahoo might be working with Robin Labs on a Yahoo-version of the white label Robin Labs intelligent assistant. According to the story, the Siri-like virtual assistant was supposed to stay under wraps for a while, but the story surfaced after a video with the Yahoo-branded app was leaked.

Robin Labs has developed a technology platform that incorporates speech recognition, natural language processing, and task-based building blocks that it refers to as task agents. I looked through the Robin Labs website to see if I could detect whether they use a third party solution for speech recognition and NLP, but I didn’t see any references in that regard. That leads me to surmise that Robin Labs has its own proprietary NLP technology, but I could be wrong.

The task agent platform is called Robin.AI and consists of granular components of functionality such as messaging capability, note taking, calendar administration, traffic and weather. Non-programmers can apparently build their own custom intelligent virtual assistants by starting with the core Robin.AI platform and then plugging in task agents to configure the kind of intelligent assistant they need. If a pizza delivery shop wants to create their own virtual agent, for example, they can assemble the traffic and messaging app to send alerts to drivers in case of traffic back-ups. That’s a simple example, but it illustrates the intended flexibility of the building block platform.

Another aspect of Robin.AI is that the platform tracks user data, including user preferences, so that it can learn to infer user intent. For example, an intelligent assistant based on Robin.AI can make note of the fact that you like music by the rock band Boston and that you are currently in the car listening to your iPod. So if you say “I feel like Boston,” the assistant has enough information to extrapolate that you want to hear a Boston tune (and not get driving directions to Boston, for example).

It remains to be seen if Yahoo really is building an intelligent assistant app based on the Robin.AI platform. It wouldn’t be an unexpected move, since the prevalence and importance of virtual agent technologies is undoubtedly on the upswing.