Google Now review: A glimpse at the future of search

Taking Google Now for a spin after a recent update.

My Galaxy Nexus suddenly became sentient when Google Now recently became an order of magnitude more useful after Verizon’s over-the-air update service loaded Android Jelly Bean 4.2 and two subsequent updates. It is likely the result of not only a software update but also the permission I gave to Google Now to monitor my inbox and calendar when it first appeared on my smartphone.

Now illustrates how mobile and cloud services can operate as a unified platform and is a harbinger of Google’s evolution from a sometimes accurate desktop search service to a usually accurate personal assistant. Unfortunately for those with older versions of Android, it is only available on Android Jelly Bean releases.

It took Now a little longer to understand my profile than usual because I split time living in Boston and San Francisco and work as a journalist and contract software project manager. Now distinguished between both locations where I live and impressed me with its understanding of my nomadic work schedule by learning to remind me to "leave for work" to keep my irregular schedule.

However, there have been two ongoing anomalies. Now believes that I work for Ed Roberts, who founded the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, and will randomly remind me of the traffic and travel time to reach him. The error is understandable, as I am acquainted with Ed Roberts and he is a Google contact. I have worked for many ventures, Linkedin has categorized startups as one of my skills, and I often write about startup ventures. All of this information is readily available to Google’s spiders. Google Now also for some inexplicable reason thinks I have an affiliation with or need to have my rugs cleaned by Tower Carpet, as it regularly gives me the time and traffic in a reminder to "leave for Tower Carpet Cleaning."

But, generally, Now delights. It has replaced my fumbling through my phone to present a boarding pass formerly delivered in my email, an airline app or webpage with a clean Now card boarding pass that includes an optimally sized QR code for reading by TSA that I can present with just one upward swipe. As an additional bonus, Now knows and includes the departure gate that is not always reported on the boarding pass provided by the airline.

Voice search is almost always satisfying whether Now is asked to find a location, a person, a telephone number or to lookup and call a contact. Although there are a few names, such as Duborg (Now produces inoperable variants such as Due Bug or Do Borg), that it has not learned to interpret accurately yet.

When a search or reminder card includes a location, Now offers a direct link to navigation. The interface is very clean, using a minimum of gestures, but it would be much less distracting and useful to drivers if this transition from Now to navigation could be made entirely with voice commands.

Now is a step forward in Google’s evolution. With Now, Google is replacing its search user interface by requiring the user to enter just a few keywords into a browser and select the best answer from the ranked search results. Now anticipates what the user wants next and usually delights him or her with the result.

Though the use cases of Now seem restricted to those where it's likely to produce accurate results, it is clear that Now unifies many of the resources, services and much of the data acquired by other Google developments, such as search and maps, across the company. As the predictive algorithms are applied to new areas, the number of use cases will quietly grow.

Now is a glimpse of the future. Search and advertising as we have come to understand them in the context of a PC browser will over time become a less frequent means of engagement with Google search, replaced by the prediction of the user’s next need or query using predominantly voice recognition as input. Users will need to trust Google and provide more personal information to benefit from Now and its successors, and Google’s advertising model will have to evolve to be more predictive and equally as delightful as the results that Now produces.

An iOS version of Now would draw a lot of interest and push more downloads of Google Maps and Gmail for iOS. It would make more sense for Google than an Andoid Gingerbread version. It’s a future that we might see, especially as Now matures and people recognize they want it to predict what they want next.

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