How to make your phone think for itself

A bit of button-pushing can make your phone think for itself
A bit of button-pushing can make your phone think for itself
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It’s a camera, a web browser and a music player – your smartphone is such a Swiss army knife of a device that you wouldn’t have thought it had many more tricks up its sleeve.

Yet at heart, it’s also a computer – which means that whatever you have already made it do is just the tip of the iceberg. A bit of tinkering under the bonnet will unleash a new realm of possibilities.

If is, for instance, possible to connect it automatically to your car stereo whenever you open the door; turn on the torch if it’s too dark, or tune into The Archers every night at seven. All you need is an app.

Since the PC boom of the 1990s there have been programs which will execute “macros”, or tasks on a schedule. To this day, Windows has a built-in service to do just that. Phone automation works in the same way, except that it is no longer the province of the technically-inclined. Consumer-level tools mean it’s now as easy as setting the TV timer.

Apps like Tasker and MacroDroid work by letting you specify an action to be carried out whenever a “trigger event” of your choosing is detected. The trigger can be a date or time, an incoming call, or the activation of one of your phone’s many sensors. The app stays awake in the background, listening out for the events in question, and then does what you’ve told it, without any further prompting.

Automation is at its most useful when you need to tap a whole series of keys to make your phone do what you want. If you are in the habit of checking the weather and the train times when you wake it up in the morning, you can let a macro can do it for you – just by picking up the handset, if you want.

External tags take the idea a stage further. A discreet sticker the size of a sixpence can activate a set of tasks on your phone whenever the two come into contact, and although the technology is similar to that used on contactless shop tills, you don’t need to be a security expert to set it up.

What you do need is a phone that has an NFC sensor on the back. It stands for near-field communication – a protocol for transmitting small amounts of data over very short distances. Your phone’s NFC can be left switched on all the time without noticeably affecting the battery, making it alive to any passing signal.

Although NFC is mostly the province of commerce – smart cards on buses use it, for example – it’s readily available to consumers. Programmable tags can be bought online for just a few pence and your automation app can write instructions on them. Stick one to the door pillar of you car, or to your key fob, to turn on Bluetooth whenever you go out. Or pop one next to the front door to connect to your wi-fi. If you have smart light bulbs, central heating or security cameras, you can control those, too.

There is, inevitably, a possible complication, which is that some phone manufacturers – not least Samsung and Huawei – use quite aggressive app-killing technology to prolong your phone’s battery life. This is helpful on the whole, but it does mean that background processes may not be as active as you would like in listening out for triggers. Some tinkering in your phone’s settings may be necessary to ensure that your automation apps are left, literally, to their own devices. That’s fiddly, but It may be the last laborious task you have to do yourself.