Quick Review: Unfailingly polite Winston is a babbling butler for your iPhone

Quick Review: Unfailingly polite Winston is a babbling butler for your iPhone

As a new iPhone 5 owner, I'm in hyper-try-out-new-apps mode, and Reactor Labs' Winston app is today's test subject, having arrived as a free offering on the Apple App Store this week.

The speech-enabled app - buzz around which started as early as last summer -- is frequently being described as a cross between Apple Siri and the popular Flipbook news app, and that's fairly apt. The app's initial use is as a news and social media update reader, enabling users to get brief summaries of the news and the people they follow on Twitter and Facebook, without necessarily looking at their phones.

While I downloaded it during the afternoon, the app is designed to give you a briefing first thing in the morning and then whenever you choose after that.

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Winston is simple to set up, with it initially asking you to select topics of interest from a few offerings (sports, politics, technology, world news, etc.) and then asks for permission to tap into your Facebook and Twitter accounts to peruse updates from those you follow on those social networks. When you dive deeper into channel settings, you can select from featured publications such as The Verge, ESPN and The Guardian and browse for others, such as The Onion (one knock against Winston's taste: No Network World listed in there).

When you click on the app for your Briefing, tinkly music plays and Winston first gives you a weather update, assuming you've allowed it to peek at your location. It then seemingly randomly runs through news clips and updates on your social networks.

If you're actually looking at your phone while using that app, that's one thing, and the images are slick and soothing. But I decided to give it a whirl while driving and not looking at the phone. In this mode, I found the app to be a distraction because it was generally giving me so little information that I didn't know what it was talking about more than half the time. For example, it informed me that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has posted a new photo and that a lot of people liked it. It also threw me when referring to the International Olympic Committee - IOCas "I-Awk." It was amusing, though, to hear Winston, speaking in a full BBC accent, referring to subjects such as LeBron James.

Winston ended briefings by telling me how thankful and grateful he was to be of service.

Settings are designed to allow you to turn the background music on or off and speed up or slow down the voice (when I turned the voice from Fast to Normal, Winston quipped "Thank you, I was growing a bit tired." Winston also works with AirPlay and AppleTV.

CEO Jason Ting told VentureBeat that Winston is going to get more useful as it matures, such as by reading off your calendar items and such. Also, like Siri, it will supposedly get smarter the more you use it, learning about what topics you really want to hear about.

Boulder, Colo.-based Reactor Labs has received $750,000 in seed funding.

Bob Brown tracks network research in his Alpha Doggs blog and Facebook page, as well on Twitter and Google +. 

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.

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