Google Now: What it Actually Does

Google Now showing daily schedule. Source: ITworld

Google Nowis not Google's version of Siri, exactly. Nor is it just a fancy way of showing search results. It's this contextual voice search thing that can do some amazing things, can't do some basic things, and is regularly getting better. Here's an attempt to explain it.

What follows is a Q&A with the doubting voice inside my head, the one fed by questions and assumptions from bloggers, friends, and my own sense of Google and Android expectations. It has a lot of questions about Google Now. Let's get to them.

Question: So, Google Now is basically Google fighting back against Apple's Siri "virtual assistant."

Answer:Maybe/kinda. It does work through Voice Search, but it doesn't have to—you can type in anything you can say and get the same results. It does provide you with local results ("Good sushi nearby"), it does make appointments, and it lets you text people from your voice. But it shows lots of originality, too, and makes sense as an extension of Google's efforts to provide relevant, contextual answers with as little friction as possible. (See also " Google Now and Search Revamp: The Most Exciting Updates in Android Jelly Bean.")

You could have just said no.

Sorry. Everything in the tech press has to be a battle, even if it seems like customers on both sides are winning.

So, where is Google Now? How do I get it?

Right now, it's a feature built into Android 4.1, and Android 4.1 is officially available on two devices: the Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone (at least the unlocked and GSM versions), and the Nexus 7 tablet (made by Acer). Some devices (including Verizon-sold Galaxy Nexus phones) can be "rooted" and given a modified version of Android 4.1, and Android 4.0 devices can run a patched-together version.

Google Now stock results. Source: ITWorld

That's not much of a spread

Unless you consider the remarkably brisk sales of the Nexus 7. That should signal to phone makers that Android 4.1 is something consumers want (fingers crossed).

Okay, so what else can Google Now, besides the Siri-like basics?

Did you see JR Raphael's piece on 70 things to try with Google Voice Search in Android 4.1? I mean, seriously, some of it is nuts. "What is the temperature of the sun?" "How tall is Will Arnett?" "What is Oracle stock trading at today?" "S-Y-N-C" to get a spoken read-out on a stock. "Navigate to Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland."

What does Google Now not do well?

It definitely has some kinks. In particular, I've found on my devices, in coordinating with other apps.

The built-in text messaging translation ("Text Brian Smith, How about a Cubs game next Friday?") works pretty well, unless you use Google Voice as your text messaging service. Speak a text and tap "Send message," and you'll be asked, in normal fashion, whether to use "Messaging" or "Google Voice" to send it. If you choose Google Voice, there's a very good chance it just won't go through, and you won't ever know it didn't go through. That's been my experience, at least, running a lightly modified Android 4.1 build on a Verizon Galaxy Nexus.

Like Siri, too, Google Now feels magical when it works, and completely moronic when it transcribes seemingly basic words incorrectly, or doesn't understand your context at all. That's the nature of voice recognition.

Google Now answers questions. Source: ITWorld

It seems like you keep interchanging "Voice Search" and "Google Now"

You're right. When you tap the microphone on your home screen and tell your phone to search, do, or answer something, the result comes up in Google Now, the specialized results window that has personalized "cards" along with the standard links. But as noted earlier, if you typed the same thing into Google Now, you'd get the same answers. Voice Search is just (usually) the easiest way to get to Google Now.

Cards?

Cards. As you use Google Now and carry your phone around, it tries to get smarter about showing you relevant contextual information when you simply bring up Google Now for a glance, rather than for a specific search. The weather nearby and your next calendar appointment (and the time to drive there with traffic figured in) are the defaults. If you allow Google to maintain your Google Web History, you'll also start seeing flights you searched for, sports teams you're interested in, stock updates, and other context.

When will I ever get Google Now?

Probably the next time you buy a new Android device, unless your device is in line to receive an upgrade to Android 4.1.

But, then again, Google has just delivered search results that feature some Google-Now-like context cards. So the real answer may be that you'll get it inside your browser, and then later on, baked into your phone.

What's the distance from the Earth to its moon?

238,900 miles, or 384,400 kilometers, as Google Now just told me in its reassuring robo-female patois.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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