Google Now: Google What?

Google (Alphabet) has its own eponymous app for both iOS and Android devices called “Google”. Sometimes it is more colloquially referred to (especially inside the company) as Google Now. The premise is a smart app that trolls your emails, location data, maps history, calendar, and other information that Google knows about you to offer you recommendations and information that Google thinks you would want to know.

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Each snippet of information shows up in a little card. There are cards for weather, traffic, public transportation information, news, sports scores, airline reservations, your calendar schedule, stock prices, restaurant reservations, and more. Google wants to predict what you might be thinking and when and offer you specific answers to your internal questions based on a host of information already saved somewhere inside your personal Google account. It also wants to keep you updated on your life events that might be happening via your emails and calendars. Users can click cards for more information, swipe away cards when they are deemed unnecessary or not useful, and scroll to find more cards.

Furthermore, the app features Google voice search command that one sees so often on TV commercials. Open the app, tell your phone your search query, and most of the time it’ll give you a nice little list of results with some snazzy narration.

If one is an avid Google user and funnels his or her email, calendar, internet browsing, video watching, and social life through Google properties, then the app can actually be quite useful. I especially find it useful regarding upcoming flights—the app goes through your email confirmations received from airlines and displays all the relevant information for you in a little, easy-to-digest card format. Another cool use case is for traffic. Presuming Google knows where you work and where you live, it can give you real-time traffic information (taken from standard Google Maps app) and suggest when you should start heading home (via a push notification). Another nice touch is that it includes calls-to-action with some cards, whether it’s to buy tickets to an event, book a hotel, reserve a table at a restaurant, or buy a product. So far, no ads have shown up in the card feed—probably because the usage is so low there are no advertisers willing to spend money to reach minimal eyeballs. Another plausible explanation is that Google doesn’t want to clutter this product with ads as it has with so many of its other products.

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The service has been out for quite some time (I have been using it since 2013 and only because I was working at Google) but an informal HBS straw poll of 10 students showed that not one person had even heard about this app offering from Google. I can confirm that sentiment elsewhere in the tech-hub and tech-forward Bay Area, California nonetheless. Few outside of Google actually know Google even has an app, let alone what it does or how it can be useful. Despite massive TV advertising, among the generation of 20-30 somethings this Google app has been far from a hit.

One of the more amazing but downright eerie features of the Google app is the location history. If you have the app and have your location services on (which I presume many users do by default but there is definitely an option to turn it off), Google will track your every movement via your phone and GPS. Look at where I went on December 29, 2014. I can confirm I did play golf that day out in Eastern San Diego and then returned home.

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How about Sunday September 28, 2014? I clearly made a full day of Harvard. I wonder what I was doing on Linden Street?

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I flew home on Thanksgiving Day in 2014 to surprise my whole family who thought I wasn’t coming home for the holiday. Good thing they have no idea this even exists on Google.

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It even tracked me during FIELD II all the way in Brazil on January 4, 2015. Don’t tell mom I went to Bar Tize in Belo Horizonte!

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One doesn’t have to think very hard about all the possibilities of how this information could be useful, harmful, interesting, and disastrous all at the same time. I am sure this would take relationships to a new level if only people actually knew about this. For Google and for me, it’s scary—Google basically knows everywhere I go and when I go there with a good degree of accuracy. Should I be upset or should I be thankful in case this information actually comes in handy one day? I think that’s up for an individual to decide. But regardless, Google has done a poor job marketing this feature—I wonder why…

 In summary, if you are a Google maniac and run your life through Google products, Google Now could be very useful for you. I actually really, really like the idea of smart recommendations and trying to predict what you are thinking and/or the information you need. I think it’s the future of the connected world—having technology think for you. And I believe Google is the one company in the world best positioned to do this due to the extensive data they have on all of us. However, without adoption or a solid marketing effort (a problem that is pervasive throughout Google for most of its products and services), this app is nothing but a fun little app for Google employees, ex-employees, and those who love their TV commercials or happen to stumble upon it one day. Perhaps Google doesn’t care to advertise it because they are still working on making the cards relevant and smart and don’t want mass adoption of a less-than-optimal solution.

Finally, the location history is an interesting one. I love showing my friends the technology and most are very intrigued when I do, wondering if they can figure out their own location history. Most are disappointed that they can’t because they don’t have the Google App installed. But then they have no real desire to install it, so they don’t.

Overall, it is definitely a fun little exercise to think about what Google can do with Google Now and what the future might hold.

By: Danny Belch


2 Comments

  1. Frederic Rupprecht

    Hey Danny, thanks for sharing your review of Google Now! I am probably one of the few that has actually heard of Google Now. I even downloaded it once and tried it out. I do agree with you, that this is the future, seamless integration between technology and humans. For me, Google Now could become the future personal assistant. However, I do believe Google Now as well as other apps such as Siri, that try to integrate different apps to one central assistant program, still lack relevance. My experience was that Google Now had problems making sense of my mails and calendar entries that are both sometimes in German, sometimes in English. In the end it cost me more time to handle the app, than what I actually saved through helpful guidance. I guess Google still needs more time to develop this into a really great assistant program. I am wondering why the development is so slow though. For how long is Siri on the market for example? Couple of years already without any meaningful improvements. I really hope Google puts more emphasize on improving and developing its Google Now service, as I believe it can dramatically disrupt our lives once it really makes sense of us.

  2. Shankar Vellal

    Hi Danny,

    I have used Google Now quite a bit and also deliberately installed the Google App when I moved from Android to iOS so that I continue to have Google Now. Here are a few more thoughts:

    1) The broader strategy here (based on what they mentioned in the I/O 2015 keynote) for Google is that it's moving away from a 'just search an index of the web and get relevant links' model to an 'assisted' model. By assisted, I mean Google just doesn't point you to the links, but assists you and gives you the answers itself (including ability to take actions).

    2) The Google Now experience differs significantly in Android vs. iOS in one respect. On Android, you just have to swipe from the bottom of the screen and there's Google Now (regardless of what app you are on). On iOS though, you have to install a separate app and users are not even aware, as you mentioned.

    3) More recently, Google launched Now on Tap (http://www.theverge.com/2015/10/5/9444039/google-now-on-tap-feature-android-m-hands-on-video) which I'm quite excited about. It's basically an always-on assistant (you just have to long-press the home button to access it, and you can do it from any app) that understands context currently on the screen and intelligently gives you relevant answers and actions. I would also seriously recommend watching the original Keynote on Now on Tap (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V-fIGMDsmE&t=52m30s). The underlying technology here's quite something!!

    4) What I'm particularly intrigued about is Google Now's strategy going forward. Google has always made its apps and functionalities available on most platforms. For example, search, Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Drive (practically everything in Google) is available to most users regardless of whether they use Android or not. This makes sense given Google's business model which relies on advertising and hence needs as many users as it can possibly get.

    (This is in contrast to Apple's business model of making money primarily through devices and hence, not caring so much of making its apps available on Android. For example, iCloud, Apple Photos, KeyNote etc. are not on Android. This changed with Apple Music, however).

    But should Google try to make the Now on Tap experience available on iOS? Is it even possible? (On Android, Google does it because it has a lot more access to the context, regardless of what app is open). If it's not, how does it play with Google's strategy of having its products available everywhere, regardless of whether users have Android? Does it make enough of a difference to cause users to consider switching to Android? How will Apple respond?

    My take is that, even if Google makes some of the functionalities of Now on Tap available on iOS, it's not going to be the same *experience* as it's on Android. Depending on how Apple responds, it will cause the set of users who can buy both iPhones and Android devices to consider switching. Depending on how useful this experience becomes (what if it becomes as useful as Google search?), it can become a critical differentiator of Android.

    Thanks for writing about this. This is a really interesting area and it's exciting to see how this will evolve.