“Babbage an bar mac at Navarro.”

That’s the phrase that iOS autocorrect rewrote when I tried to write the word “navbar” four times. In fact, as I typed out this sentence, OS X changed “navbar” to “nabber.” Deleted that, rewrote the correct word, and autocorrect tried to help me again.

The thing is… I’m a designer, so I write the word “navbar” at least a half-dozen times every time. I right-click and tell my computer to “Learn Spelling” just as often; it never works, and don’t even have that option on iOS. Don’t get me started on Siri dictation. Or typing curse words. Ducking get it right, you piece of shut!

Your smartphone is the most personal thing about you. You may wear underwear or keep a diary, but there is no object that knows all your secrets and thought… that you also keep on your person all day.

But is my smartphone really so smart? Or so personal?

I’ve been a web designer for ten years, and I didn’t come up with the term “navbar.” (Damn it—again, I got “nabber”). Why doesn’t my phone know that? Even taking into account Apple’s infamous struggle with building robust services, why does the world’s most advanced and personal invention still fight me on standard design jargon?

The big picture

My beef is not with autocorrect; “nabber” is not a big deal.1 This whole problem goes away if I just write out “navigation bar,” and would probably take less time given how often I have to fight the autocorrect.

This is a segue to a larger topic: our devices are missing context in a world that is increasingly pivoting toward Big Data and personalization.

Thai restaurant, blurred out faces with question marks

Source: a friend who took the photo, but my phone doesn’t know who.

Facebook knows that I went to eat Thai food last night with some friends because someone tagged me in it. But it doesn’t know whether I liked it… or why I went there… or even what I ordered. That checkin didn’t tell Facebook how apathetic I am toward Thai food. Maybe Yelp knows, but I never leave reviews.

Either way, I’m already getting sidebar advertisements for similar restaurants in the area.

Automatic knows that my car went from home to the Thai restaurant, and Uber has my ride from a friends to a nearby shopping center on file. Neither service knows that we went to a karaoke bar, or that I hate karaoke.

Coming soon: something better?

In 2007, I got my first iPhone. Coming from an LG flip, everything it did seemed like magic. A smooth panel of glass, three game-changing devices wrapped up into one, and the best Christmas gift that I had ever received.

Then about an hour in, my phone called me “Gayle” in an email.

I was writing a message in Mail.app and threw my customary signature at the end (something generic like “Cheers, Hawke”). But just before I hit send, my “revolutionary internet communicator” autocorrected “Hawke” to “Gayle” in an email that went out to 50 classmates. They reply-all-heckled me about it for days.

College shenanigans aside, these gaps are clear obstacles that stand between us and the future that we want.

I’m not talking about flying cars and cities on the moon. My expectations are both smaller and more accessible. This fall when iOS 10 comes out, I’d settle for an iMessage app that tells me what my significant other wants for dinner so that I don’t have to ask him every single day as I leave work.2 We have the technology.

Apple has bet its services-based future on this year’s latest buzzwords, differential privacy:

Differential privacy, translated from Apple-speak, is the statistical science of trying to learn as much as possible about a group while learning as little as possible about any individual in it. With differential privacy, Apple can collect and store its users’ data in a format that lets it glean useful notions about what people do, say, like and want. But it can’t extract anything about a single, specific one of those people that might represent a privacy violation.

In a few years, my iPhone will probably have learned the word “navbar.” If not just from me, but from thousands of other irritated designers who have to deal with the same annoyance. After all, my phone eventually learned that my name was Hawke and that I don’t have a fifty year-old alter-ego, named “Gayle.” Technology marches forward.

But I wouldn’t say no to a user-accessible dictionary of whitelisted words either.

  1. But just saying… Apple even has a page titled, “Navbar,” on its developer documentation site

  2. Let’s be honest… you now want this, too.