For some strange reason, Google decided to schedule their Google I/O event at the same time as UNTETHER.talks, so just now am I catching up on all the news. There was quite a bit of info, but two items stand out in their correlation: the Chrome browser launch for iOS devices and the unveiling of Google Now as part of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. The connection? Search results and ad revenue, of course.
Desktop Chrome users will likely welcome a Mobile Safari alternative, as Chrome for iOS allows them to sync tabs, bookmarks and omnibox data between desktop and mobile. While this is a nice feature for Chrome users, it’s much more beneficial for Google. Why? Chrome for iOs pushes users to sign in with their Google profile to enable synchronization, which means Google gets to track all the searches, +1s, and other data points that can escape them when Mobile Safari is used. More data = better targeted ads = more ad revenue for Google.
Besides, as UNTETHER.tv readers and UNTETHER.talks attendees are well aware, mobile is forcing a move from search to find to something else entirely (which I’ve heard described as ‘push’ or ‘HUD’ or ‘pervasive push’) – from Google searches to Siri to the mobile equivalent of the British AI in the Iron Man movies. Giving mobile users another way to make Google searches doesn’t mean much because mobile users don’t want to search; they want information presented to them when/where they need it, before they have to ask.
Which is what makes Google Now so interesting, not only for what it is trying to achieve, but the mindset behind its construction. At first glance, Google Now could be dismissed as a poor Siri competitor without the ‘personality’: push the button, ask a question, get an answer. Google Now exhibits Google’s heritage in web based search most when it’s not working: if Google Now can’t find a ready answer to your query, it converts it to a standard Google search and displays the best page results (bad Google Now, I want find, not search!).
Google Now extends beyond Siri in its capacity to display ambient information based upon your Google searches. Consider this description from the Verge’s recent review of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (worth a read in its entirety).
The main feature of Google Now comes by way of “Cards” that are presented in a vertically-scrolling list. The idea is that they appear naturally as you go about your day, giving you information that you were about to search for anyway. Within the interface, you can swipe them away or tap on them for more details, but you cannot directly re-order them.”
Rather, you’re just supposed to use Google search as you normally would (preferably extensively) — to search for restaurants, get directions, check sports scores, and the like. As you do, Google keeps an eye on your activities and then offers up the cards it believes are relevant to your interests. The idea is that simply through organic use of your phone, Google Now will be able to predict what kind of information you may need and have it ready for you with a simple swipe up from the home button — and in some cases Google also gives you notifications that there are new cards available.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll take it step by step. Firstly, and most importantly, Google Now offers compelling differentiation in its attempt to not only match Siri’s ability to ‘find’ information, but provide contextually relevant data before it is asked for – the pot of gold at the end of the search/find/push rainbow. Amazingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly considering that we are talking about Google, Google Now also creates an incentive to keep Google searching, because the more you search, the more Google Now knows, and thus the more it can tell you. Finally, while Siri is opening up to integrate with 3rd party services to provide a a more compelling find experience, Google may have created the first truly useful ‘push/HUD’ service leveraging its legacy search service. A Siri/Google head to head post may be in order.
Of course, Google Now isn’t monetized, and the farther Google moves from displaying search results to displaying the data from those searches, the farther it moves from mobile ad revenue. But Google Now is one of the few products in Google’s portfolio that leverages its history while reaching for the future, which makes it an important product to watch.