Co.Design

How The Future Of Google Search Is Leaving iPhone Users Behind

Google’s fantastic personal assistant app, Google Now, just rolled out for the iPhone. But it will never be as good as the Android version, and that’s a big bummer for Apple devotees.

Google’s been in the search business for its entire existence, and it’s been trying to improve search all along the way. A few years back, with Google Instant, we saw just how fanatical the company could be in its pursuit of fast, frictionless search. No matter that the feature, which showed you updated search results as you typed, letter by letter, turned a simple query for a chicken parm recipe into an utterly schizophrenic experience. If it could shave a few milliseconds off search time, it was a winner!

The logical (and much more desirable) conclusion of all this, of course, is a Google search that gives you results without you even having to ask for them in the first place. And that’s the basic the idea behind Google Now, a personalized assistant that draws from your Google account and your search behavior to give you a nice visual package of information that might be relevant at a given moment.

Google Now has been baked into Android since last summer, when Google rolled out the Jelly Bean version of the OS, and today it debuted on the iPhone and iPad. But the way it’s available to users of those devices—as a feature tacked on to the existing Google Search app—is less than ideal, to say the least. It begs the question: When you have to dig through an app to get to it, can Google Now really be, well, now?

The point of Google Now is to give you answers without making you search at all. One way it does this is by integrating with your Google account, pulling calendar entries, restaurant directions, sports scores, and more into a tidy at-a-glance package. If you’ve got a flight later in the day, Now will keep your boarding information handy—and send you a reminder of when you need to leave, factoring in real-time traffic data between your location and the airport. On Android, it’s continually running in the background, ready to be summoned up at any moment. And on that platform, it’s tightly integrated with Google Search, not only allowing you to ask for answers by text or voice but also learning from those queries and serving up more relevant information to you based on what you’re looking for.

Much as you’d expect, the iOS version isn’t nearly as tightly integrated. On the iPhone, Now gets crammed awkwardly into the bottom of the official Google Search app. To use it, you have to not only open that app but flick Now up onto your screen whenever you want to look at it. And unless you make a point of doing all your searching through that official Google Search app, Now can only do so much to tailor itself to you, uniquely, as a user.

If you’re not especially excited about Google Now, those shortcomings can seem like a "who cares" type of thing. But you should be excited about Now, because it is, in no uncertain terms, the future of Google Search. Consider how Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, envisioned his company’s future in 2004: "Ultimately I view Google as a way to augment your brain with the knowledge of the world," Brin said. "Right now you go into your computer and type a phrase, but you can imagine that it could be easier in the future, that you can just have devices you talk into, or you can have computers that pay attention to what’s going on around them and suggest useful information."

Today, nearly a decade later, Google is remarkably close to achieving both of those things. The company’s voice search is astounding; if you haven’t tried it lately, you should. It’s lightning quick at processing queries, and it gets them right at a remarkably high rate (even when you try to throw it a curveball by asking for winners of past Survivor seasons in your most exaggerated southern drawl).

Google Now is the realization of the other half of Brin’s vision. Without you having to do anything, it tells you what you need to know. It’s the type of passive, ambient, intelligent search that will be crucial to the success of next-gen wearable devices, on which manually searching will be an even greater pain in the ass than it is on our phones.

But Now can’t thrive when it’s stuck inside a single app, cut off from your other mobile activity on the back end and hidden from your view on the front end. It wasn’t designed to be a discrete thing. In fact, just the opposite; the true power of Google Now comes from its tight integration and at-a-glance functionality—from figuring out what you’re looking for and, eventually, putting it right there in front of you when you need it. Since the iPhone will never give Google Now that access, it can never go through that all-important learning process, and its answers will never be truly there—right there waiting for you to glance at—without you having to do anything to summon them.

What it comes down to is this: Like we saw with Facebook Home, Google Now is simply too far-reaching for the discrete app model that has dominated the smartphone landscape for the last half decade. It’s meant to grab information from various services and sources and put it all in one place. In that way, it’s a direct competitor with Siri.

But while Google Now wipes the floor with Siri in terms of its personal assistant capabilities, to call it an assistant wouldn’t be giving it its due. Because, as I’ve said, Google Now isn’t just about replacing your calendar. What it is, fundamentally, is a smarter version of search. One that doesn’t start at square zero, with a blinking cursor in an empty box but rather that knows about you and what you need from a search engine. And as we’re seeing with today’s iOS release, that Google Now experience, at least in its fullest, truest, smartest form, might well be limited to Android devices.

And so, looking into the future, you have to consider that this might be the true price of those strictly walled gardens we’ve been buying into for the last however many years. Until now, the choice between Android and iPhone was mostly a matter of taste. Sure, the former was a bit more customizable, the latter a bit more polished. But in terms of core functionality—mail and maps and browsers and, crucially, search—there wasn’t a huge difference in what you got.

Google Now, however, is a leap forward in search that can never truly reach its potential on the iPhone—at least not as the iPhone exists today. And for those trying to choose their next smartphone, that could make for a very interesting proposition. If the true future of search is exclusive to Android, will that be enough to tip the scale?

Download the Google Search app for iOS from the App Store.

Add New Comment

25 Comments

  • Ryan McNeil

    You can happily blame Apple for not allowing Google to build it in further. Google is a services company first and formost, and would benefit GREATLY from having better integration with the iPhone. But until Apple opens their platform up a little more, we iPhone guys will keep loosing out on cooler and cooler innovations on mobile, like this and the Flak keyboard.

  • Gary

    A bit less 'smart' sometimes would be nice. I do not travel the way to/from work as Now suggests so the traffic and travel time is never correct. There are posts saying the system will 'learn' after time but it would be nice for me to have the option to give my actual.

  • omaryak

    This sensationalist headline is based on a faulty premise: that you have to use the Google Search app to have your searches tracked by Google. That is simply not the case.

    The noise about home-screen integration is overblown: a marketing gimmick does not an experience make. Unlocking a phone and navigating to an app is a fine way of getting at the information you need. If an app is useful enough, you'll have it open all the time anyway, and it will give you notifications when you need them (there's your direct access from the home screen).

  • Isaac Parker

    This is a good point. However, Google Now is wonderfully convenient on a newer Motorola or Nexus device -- devices with the soft navigation buttons. Simply swipe upwards on the home button while in any application and have useful information right in front of you. It would be very handy to be given the option of this level integration on the iPhone.

  • 21tigermike

    There may be a scenario or a metric in which Google is 'leaving Apple in the dust', but don't forget: Apple still gets the highest satisfaction ratings, makes the most money for its developers (my a million miles) and makes the most profit out of the mobile industry (Samsung being a distant second).

    Google's next big rivalry isn't with Apple, it's with Facebook. Watch out.

  • hhig

    who would want google tracking their lives?  i dont.  i have every tracking thing turned off thats possible in my settings.  i despise that google tracks the videos i watch in youtube if im logged into gmail (you cant turn this off) so i use a different browser.

  • Glennette

    Google Now would be more useful for iOS if it were in the Notification Center. Of all of my Google apps, it is the only one not there. I suspect that it is because they chose to integrate it with Search rather than create another app.

    As for an assault on Siri, unless Google Now can call my husband, schedule my appointments, and set up reminders, it can never truly be a replacement.

    The fact that Google Now does not integrate with other iOS seems like a choice rather than a limitation. I have apps that work nicely with each other that are made by two different and competing developers yet complementary each other--FitBit and Lose It. 

  • Adey J

    Nice article.  Though...

    Google Now and all the similar services completely kill your battery.  I had Google Field Trip running and my battery lasted no more than 6 hours on standby. 

    Google Now is just one approach that is part of the Google Experience on Android.  There are more interesting platforms emerging like Grokr that provide "context awareness" and integration with a wider range of services.  Don't write off iPhone, Siri is not the end of the story. 

    Overall, It would have been nice to see less of a Google Advertorial and more of a proper assessment of the wider emerging trend.

  • tsunami1609

    Google Field Trip and Google Now are two different things completely. In addition, they run in different ways. Field trip is constantly tracking your location and then alerting you for things nearby. Google Now is periodical, and in addition will update more accurately when you open the app. 

    Even so, I don't know what device you're running (iphone or android phone), but it might be something else that's killing your battery if you get less than 6 hours on standby. I don't use field trip anymore, but for the month or so when I did, I didn't see any difference in battery life. Also, I happen to have a nexus phone right now, so Google Now is pretty much built into the OS, and I get WAY more than that standby time.

    You might want to look into that mate.....

  • emerazea

    "And unless you make a point of doing all your searching through that official Google Search app, Now can only do so much to tailor itself to you, uniquely, as a user."...Why wouldn't being logged into your Google account in Safari or Chrome be enough for Google to collect the data about you necessary to augment Now, now?

  • tsunami1609

    You're right. As long as you use the google services, it should work about the same (minus the cards that are missing). I think the major difference is: on Android devices capable you either long press home or swipe up from the bottom. In addition, you can set it as the default if you have another service that uses that action.

    On iOS, to access the benefits you have to return home and then open the app through the homescreen, or jailbreak to make it default over Siri. Not a big deal for some, but the less steps the better. I don't know if I'd use it nearly as much if it wasn't as easy to access. But because of the ease on my Nexus, it's almost impulsive. Barely any different from unlocking the phone or looking at my notifications. Unfortunately I don't think it'll ever be exactly the same on iOS.

  • Blithering idiots

    With Google's fragmented Android ecosystem, apparently my still rather good phone will never be upgraded by AT&T to Jelly Bean from the previous OS version. So it's all a moot point. Fuck Google in it's big dumb ass.

  • qco

    Why have we decided that a lack of objectivity and user initiation is good for a search engine? I don't think the end result of Google telling you what to do, when to do it, where to eat, etc. all dictated by your social connections and email/search history is actually a step forward, in any way really. What happened to the days when search engines just provided a route for finding answers to questions, instead of just giving us answers and telling us the questions we should be asking?

  • cassette_walkman

    "Google telling you what to do... where to eat etc... all dictated by your social connections and email/search history..." ? Dictated by you? I don't think so.

     The days of Google simply finding what you want based on what's available is long gone. Those days flew away after analytics and ad revenue crept in. Google currently gives you what it wants to, based on business advertising and general business presence and payments within the Google family of products (Gmail, Youtube etc.) Heirachy in a search result totally depends on how much businesses have paid or otherwise manipulated themselves to get there.

    Google have geared themselves to working this way and proven that our experience will work this way. The same will go for Google Now.

    It's in the name, it's not about what You want it's about what Google wants.

  • tsunami1609

    It's not doing that at all. The interaction is still there.Google's isn't tell you what to do, when to do it, where to eat, etc. It's telling you: here are some things you might be interested in and when they're available. Here's some places to eat, their reviews, and their hours. Here's some performances going on nearby you over the next few days. Out of the country (or just in a different time zone)? Here's your time back home (in case you want to call friends/family from there). Stuff like that.

    The point of google now is to provide information to make your life easier at that current point in time (a.k.a now). 

    Honestly, calling Google Now the future of search is a bit iffy. It is and it isn't. Human curiosity will always remain, and you will still have that search engine available. At the same time, it removes some of the hassles when it comes to searching THROUGH your own information. Stuff you already have, but need to locate at a particular point in time. And stuff you might need, but is more commonplace. 

    The way I see it, you still look up things like "who won the World Cup in 2006?", but no longer have to look up trivial things like the next bus at a bus stop, or tickets and showtimes. It's not for everyone, sure. But I like it. And I think it is the future, whether people like it or not.

  • Digital Strategist

    Absolutely right, and significantly I think we can be sure the pre-emptied results won't be organic. Google will be initiating the interaction and influencing the user based on whoever is the highest bidder I'm sure