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


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 It’s been a week since the iPhone 5 went on sale and in that time Apple has sold well over 10 million devices in what is without a doubt the most successful product launch in technology history. That same week, Apple released its iOS 6 software for use on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, and a staggering 100 million users have already upgraded to that software. Despite all of the amazing reviews for the iPhone 5 and staggering statistics, almost all of the media coverage during the past week has been focused on the poor performance of Apple’s new maps application.

When the original iPhone launched in 2007, one of the greatest features was the ability to interact with maps software using a touchscreen interface. The ability to zoom-in and zoom-out of the map with a pinch of your fingers was truly revolutionary. Apple licensed Google’s mapping software for its iPhone maps application, and since many users were already familiar with Google’s browser-based maps products, using maps on the iPhone felt perfectly natural. Whether searching for a local restaurant or for directions to a new shopping center, the results one would get on the browser-based Google maps and iPhone maps app were basically the same. Google made a fortune from having their mapping software power the iPhone maps app in the form of royalties Apple paid Google to access the Google Maps API. In addition, many iOS developers paid a fee to Google to access the Google Maps API from within their apps.

However, in the five years since the first iPhone launched the relationship between Google and Apple has soured. Many at Apple felt that Google’s launch of the Android operating system for mobile devices was a direct attack at Apple and stemmed from insider knowledge Google CEO Eric Schmidt obtained while on the Apple board. With the development of iOS 6, Apple decided it was finally time to kick Google out of its preinstalled apps. Apple no longer supplies a default YouTube app in its software, and more importantly decided to develop its own maps application.

In partnership with Tom Tom and Yelp, Apple launched the Apple maps app in June 2012 in the beta release of iOS 6. Interestingly, Apple decided not to launch a browser-based version of its maps application. In addition, Apple is allowing iOS app developers to access its maps API for free. When iOS 6 was released to the public last week, the resulting Apple maps app looked like it was still in beta form. The new maps app had trouble locating destinations that Google Maps found with ease, and Apple’s “fly over” 3-D images resembled a distorted-reality scene from the movie Inception for numerous locales. In addition, the new maps software lacks transit directions, a vital feature for many maps users in urban locales. Media outlets jumped on the story immediately, and for the past week have been running stories non-stop about customers’ frustrations with the new Apple maps app.  Google CEO Eric Schmidt publicly stated mid-week that it was Apple’s decision, and not Google’s, to abandon Google in the maps app. The situation has gotten so bad that only one week after the iPhone 5 launched, Apple CEO Tim Cook has issued a public letter to Apple customers apologizing for the frustrations customers have had using Apple’s new maps app, and in addition to saying Apple will work on improving the software, went so far as to recommend customers use competitors’ maps apps and websites for the time being.

A quick search of the iOS App Store for maps apps brings up numerous options including Bing Maps and MapQuest, yet has one glaring omission – Google Maps. Despite numerous rumors that Google will eventually create a standalone Google Maps app for iOS, one does not currently exist today. Some technology blogs speculate this is because Google never planned on launching an iOS Google Maps app and that its development will take several months, but I don’t buy it. Eric Schmidt is taking this opportunity to bask in the glory that the public finally appreciates that Google can do something better than Apple. On Wednesday, he made public comments that he thinks it was a mistake for Apple to drop Google Maps and that he’d be willing to work with them again if they wanted. He’s enjoying his moment as the hero while portraying Apple as the villain.

However, I think Google needs to step off its high horse for a moment and realize the opportunity in front of them. Millions of users are frustrated with Apple’s maps app and longing to use Google maps again. Millions. If Google were to launch a Google Maps app right now, it would have millions of downloads every day for weeks and instantly become the go-to maps app for most iOS users. Google could then use that opportunity to further embed ads into its maps app, something it should theoretically be very good at it. Interestingly, Google has done a very poor job of generating ad revenue from maps to date and instead relies on license fees from third-parties accessing the maps API. However, now is the perfect opportunity to change the Google Maps ad model. iOS users are longing for Google Maps so badly right now that Google could plasters ads all over the app and users wouldn’t complain.

 Instead of following this very lucrative strategy, Google is standing back and letting an ideal opportunity pass by. Perhaps Google believes that all of the negative Apple maps publicity will push iOS users to switch to phones running Google’s own Android OS, yet I believe that is very unlikely. There are such high switching costs to changing mobile operating systems (the apps you bought on iOS would need to be rebought on Android, in addition to needing to relearn how the OS works), and due to 2-year contracts with carriers it’s not possible to frequently switch phones. As Google sits back and watches the situation unfold, it is also giving other companies the opportunity to swoop in and attract new users. Bing Maps and Mapquest already have maps apps in the iOS store, and perhaps customers will start downloading those as their replacements for Apple’s native maps app. If users have good experiences with the Bing Maps app, for example, perhaps they will start using Bing Maps on their desktop browsers and even start using Bing search, which will be a direct blow to Google’s core search product. 

Eric Schmidt is probably sitting in his office right now smiling as he watches the Apple PR machine struggle to fend off the negative publicity the new Apple maps app has created. Instead, he should be out on the engineering floor supervising an effort to get a Google Maps iOS app available for download as quickly as possible. Google has the rare opportunity at this moment to be a hero and save iOS users from Apple’s terrible mistake while keeping iOS users accustomed to using Google’s products. Instead, it’s forcing iOS users to try products from Google’s competitors, such as Bing, which may prove way more costly to Google in the long run than any joy it currently gets from watching Apple squirm. 

 


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