Friday, September 28, 2012
Siri, the virtual assistant built into iPhones, launched to great fanfare last October and soon inspired a crowd of copycat apps, heated online arguments about its effectiveness, and an Apple ad campaign in which it played the starring role. It also inspired speculation that Google’s ad revenue was in jeopardy (see “Does Apple’s Siri Threaten Google’s Search Monopoly?“) and that the search and ads company would be forced to invent its own personal assistant.
Almost a year later, Google’s vision of how a smartphone can become a trusted, all-knowing assistant is rolling out to consumers in the form of Google Now. It’s a feature of the newest iteration of Android, Jelly Bean, which is so far available on only a handful of smartphones, and suggests that Google has ambitions to go well beyond what Siri has shown so far.
Google Now doesn’t have a pretend personality like Apple’s sassy assistant, instead just appearing as a familiar search box. But just like Siri, it can take voice commands related to phone functions such as setting reminders or sending messages, and field requests for information such as “How old is the Eiffel Tower?” and “Where can I find a good Chinese restaurant?”
Google Now also introduces a new trick. It combines the constant stream of data a smartphone collects on its owner with clues about the person’s life that Google can sift from Web searches and e-mails to guess what he or she would ask it for next. This enables Google Now not only to meet a user’s needs but also, in some cases, to preëmpt them. Virtual index cards appear offering information it thinks you need to know at a particular time.
“That’s actually been a goal for us with Android from the beginning,” says Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android, when asked why Google has moved to position a souped-up version of search at the heart of Android. The desire to offer useful information without a person even asking “comes from Larry [Page, Google’s cofounder],” adds Barra, “if you read the  founders’ letter, he said that one of the company goals is to get out of the way of the user.”
Barra adds that the intimacy of people’s relationships with their smartphones makes Android one of the best places to take that to an extreme—by pulling together everything Google knows about the world, and you. “The best thing about Google Now is that it uses every system that Google has built in the last 10 years. It touches almost every back-end system at Google,” says Barra, and hides that power behind a simple, automatic interface. The result, he says, is an “increase in a person’s tranquility, as opposed to having to install an app or do a search or open the browser to navigate to a webpage.”
Most of us rely heavily on Google’s search capability, whatever smartphone we own. But having the search engine come to you, rather than vice versa, can be uncanny. Thanks to Google Now, as I stroll around San Francisco, live bus times are offered to me whenever I pull my phone from my pocket at a bus stop. And when I get up in the morning, Google Now presents a panel summarizing my optimum transit journey to work along with specific buses and an estimate of the time the trip will take. (If I drove to work, it would show a driving route and traffic conditions.) Google Now will show the status of a flight if an airline confirmation e-mail in my inbox shows I’ll be taking it or if I did a Google Web search for a flight number from my work computer—providing I’ve logged into my Google account. The search history trick is also used to guess which sports results you want to know about. I searched for “Giants playoffs” once. Combined with my location, this means I now automatically see a live score for San Francisco Giants games and the final score once they’re over.