The new app Saga is aptly named. Saga, of course, harkens back to those larger-than-life tales of blonde, barrel-chested Scandinavian man-gods clashing in earth-shattering battles. Though the app Saga does not include any hammer-play, it does attempt to accomplish the epic feat of improving a person's life every minute that he or she is awake.
Running constantly in the background of your smartphone, Saga tracks your location every minute of every day, pinpointing each of your restaurant, boutique and museum visits without needing a manual "check-in." Saga can learn your shopping, eating, and leisure preferences in order to push you toward newer and bolder activities and establishments.
We are not flinging birds at pigs here: The subtextual purpose of this app is to improve your life by helping you find new adventures that you otherwise would not have known existed.
Saga has epic goals and is competing against epically large companies. The developers at ARO are going up against Apple's Siri, which learns and makes recommendations based on your past requests, as well as Google Now, a new, always-on hub in Android Jelly Bean that displays information relevant to your current location and general daily activities.
So, yes, the entire scope of Saga -- its purpose, the resources it requires, its adversaries -- is epic. But let's bring this app back down to earth. Here's how Saga works, most generally:
Let's say you're eating at Olive Garden on 48th Street. In your pocket or purse, Saga can sense that you're probably at Olive Garden, and so it marks you down as having eaten there. Later, when you're in the neighborhood again, or when dinnertime rolls around, it can recommend that you eat at Olive Garden, or other similarly priced, perhaps more highly-rated Italian restaurants that are nearby. It's all about felicitous discovery, based on your past actions and current location.
Saga -- released into Apple's App Store on Tuesday and coming soon for Android -- has certain things going for it. Its design really shines, and though I've only used it for about a day, I found its recommendations for weekend activities and lunch options to be, if not tantalizing, at least thought-provoking. I also enjoy how you can narrow down recommendations by telling the app what you've enjoyed in the past: As with the superb restaurant discovery app Alfred, a section in Saga allows you to "teach" the app by inputting your favorite spots.
Saga's most important advantage, however, is that it works without needing your input. Not having to manually check-in -- and having those ambient check-ins inform the recommendations that Saga doles out -- feels like the future. Imagine if Foursquare could just magically check you in to a place if you were sitting there for more than 10 minutes, and you didn't have to ignore your friends while you poke around on your smartphone. That's part of the next-generation technology that Saga and its touchless check-ins bring.
Unfortunately, in its infancy, Saga has (like all epic heroes!) major issues. The auto-check-in that I valorized above isn't quite foolproof just yet. To wit: For some reason Saga thought I was at a Chinese restaurant for four hours Monday night and now greatly overestimates my predilection for Asian food. Also, when I went on an evening run around the block, the app checked me into several women's boutiques that are now tainting my suggestions queue. There doesn't seem to be any fast or easy way to un-check-in once Saga pins you down somewhere -- you can change your location, but this is a messy and generally irksome process.
That speaks to a larger problem with Saga: It's a bit confusing to navigate. Unlike Siri and Google Now, which are idiot-proof, it took me a long time to figure out what the heck was actually happening inside Saga. Input buttons aren't always where you expect them to be, you're never quite sure when you've successfully checked in somewhere, and, most troubling of all, it remains unclear to me what I should actually be "doing" on the app.
Though I appreciate the recommendations, I feel as though I'm not getting everything I should be out of this ambitious app, given that it runs 24 hours per day. This is a Saga, after all: It should be epic.
There are also, of course, the more immediate concerns: An app that constantly runs is also constantly draining your battery, and an app that is always tracking your location will doubtless scare off those with privacy concerns. (Saga, for its part, assures users that its data is never shared with third-party advertisers, that it is kept "safe and secure," and that it can be deleted from the Saga servers at any time).
Saga has a long road to travel to catch up with Google Now, which has better organization and shares both more information and more relevant information than Saga. Calendar integration will be key for Saga in the future, as will better maps and traffic information within the app itself. If Saga truly wants me to run it 24 hours a day, it needs to be relevant to me 24 hours a day -- not just when I'm shopping or eating.
As in all great sagas, however, there is plenty of time for the app to redeem itself and complete its transition from underdog to epic hero. Google Now doesn't appear headed to the iPhone anytime soon, and there is nothing as ambitious on the App Store as Saga. We'll be watching Saga to see if it can live up to its name and slowly unfold into something great.
Saga is available for download on the Apple App Store now but is currently invite-only. The app will launch on the Android Play Store soon.