Alfred creator discusses the app’s “Serendipity Engine” for dining recommendations and more

Aug 12, 2011

While the free Alfred iPhone app is already a hit with foodies, the app’s developers have “big plans” for takings its “Serendipity Engine” for recommendations into other walks of life. “We want to expand his recommendations to go beyond places and deals, and cover products in the real world,” said Babak Pahlavan, CEO of Alfred’s […]

While the free Alfred iPhone app is already a hit with foodies, the app’s developers have “big plans” for takings its “Serendipity Engine” for recommendations into other walks of life.

“We want to expand his recommendations to go beyond places and deals, and cover products in the real world,” said Babak Pahlavan, CEO of Alfred’s developer Clever Sense.

Already, Alfred, which turned some heads last month at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, offers some pretty tasty food recommendations. As Appolicious Advisor Kathryn Swartz noted in her review:

“You can teach Alfred from the start, but how much information you give at the beginning is up to you. The more you teach Alfred, the more specific to your tastes its recommendations will be…. I found Alfred to be a pretty slick app and its recommendations to be plentiful and mostly accurate.”

In this edition of Meet the Makers, Pahlavan talks about Alfred’s underlying technology, shares how the app first got discovered, and forecasts a Jetsons-like world with Rosie the Robot making recommendations for users at all times, wherever they travel.

Appolicious: What is your definition of the term “Serendipity Engine”?

Babak Pahlavan: The Serendipity Engine is a personalized, context-aware discovery engine. The engine truly curates recommendations to be relevant for the user and his or her situation — serendipitous — by taking into account multiple factors. These include a user’s interest, past preferences, time of the day, day of the week, information about places around the user the way people talked about them and eventually, who the user is with.

APPO: When creating Alfred, aside from the focus on dining suggestions, how did you seek to differentiate from the other personal assistant apps available?

BP: Alfred is different from other personal assistant apps because he has suggestions before the user even asks. Alfred offers relevant recommendations for dining or nightlife without a specific query, providing effortless great ideas for going out. The serendipity engine that powers Alfred constantly learns about locations in the physical world by looking at how people talk about them on blogs and on the general web and goes above & beyond a traditional location-based database of places.

APPO: Is there an audience segment or demographic that you did NOT anticipate using the app where you are now finding traction?

BP: We’ve been thrilled with the positive reception that Alfred is getting from all over the nation. In particular, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by our users’ dedication to making Alfred’s database even better. They send in reports saying that places have closed or are missing from their recommendations, which helps us improve Alfred.

APPO: Are there any plans to develop an app for Android or other mobile operating systems? If so, when? If not, why not?

BP: We’re hoping to release a specialized Alfred for iPad very soon, and an Android and WP7 version are in the works! Stay tuned!

APPO: Aside from creating a great app, what in your opinion is the best way to generate awareness upon launch?

BP: Our own launch was actually quite the whirlwind! We officially launched with a win at the Start-up Idol competition at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, CO. We were lucky to get great press coverage on Alfred. Making a great app is the most important factor, though, in my opinion. In fact, Alfred’s success took us a little by surprise! Alfred was in the App Store with no publicity whatsoever, and Apple recognized the product and featured the App for weeks after launch.

APPO: What are you doing to drive downloads over time?

BP: We’re continuously improving Alfred by adding requested features and improving the user experience in general.  One big update we’re excited about is making Alfred more social. We’re adding functionality so users can share their great experiences using Alfred’s recommendations with their friends. Long-term, we’ve got big plans for Alfred. Soon you’ll see Alfred finding deals that would match your taste.

Also, we want to expand his recommendations to go beyond places and deals, and cover products in the real world. Imagine if you could walk into a mall and your personal robot, Alfred, could point out two dresses and a jacket that would match your taste and one is on sale! Imagine literally having Rosie the Robot (from The Jetsons) in your pocket anytime, anywhere.

APPO: Talk about your company? How large is your team? What was the value proposition when you raised money? Where do you see it a year from now?

BP: We are a technology company founded by two graduate students from Stanford University. Today we have a highly specialized team of 10 people (four PhDs) and we’re expanding rapidly. Our objective is to be present in your smartphones, in your car and in your TV to fullfill our mission of Curating the World Around You!

APPO: As someone immersed in the mobile media space, talk about the three biggest opportunities and challenges currently keeping you up at night.

BP: Mobile is certainly the next frontier in computing because it is a personal device that is always on, it’s Internet connected at all times, and has many more sensors than the traditional computing machine. The big opportunity and the challenge is to:

A) Connect people to the physical world: places, deals, products, etc…

B) Understand the context and offering content that would match the users’ need at the right time and the right place.

C) Provide real-time analysis of the data surrounding the user and helping them to make decisions; ultimately helping the users to solve the information overload when on-the-go.

We’re living in a technological speed race and with the rise of powerful Internet-connected smartphones on a global scale, tightly connected social networks, commoditized cloud-computing, and almost infinite data on the Internet we’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible and opportunities are seemingly endless.

The next decade will be simply and utterly amazing!

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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