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?