Remember the old days when people had secretaries to link them to the outside world? These helpful humans would tell their bosses where they had to be, who they were going with, and what to bring along. Now technology has rendered this position nearly obsolete, much like lamplighters in Victorian London.
Google Now takes the digital assistant concept one step further (which is probably why it was called "The Innovation of the Year" by Popular Science last year).
Google Now provides more than just calendar reminders or new email alerts. It uses cards for certain informational categories to deliver real-time status updates. For instance, it can tell you how much further you have to go to get to work by triangulating your route and the traffic conditions ahead (of course, I recommend you look at this while you're getting coffee or filling your gas tank, not while driving!). Now can notify you of weather forecasts, news information, movie times or sports scores. It can help assist you with language translations and currency conversions if you go abroad. Its voice activated (comparisons to Siri are inevitable, of course) and can be used to look up information, ask for directions, and more.
The Devil in the Details
Keep in mind that Google Now has certain privacy implications you should be aware of. The program can record audio, and accesses these details and functions on your phone as part of its capability set:
- Contact and calendar data
- Location and network information including Bluetooth)
- Text messages (it can read/edit/send texts)
- Phone (it can make calls and access the call log)
- USB storage
- Web bookmarks and history
Now also uses predictive analysis to get to know your habits; it factors in your searches, Gmail data, Calendar, Google Finance, and some minor Google+ data. This is how it gets to know you so it can serve you better. That last sentence may sound either creepy or logical depending on your mindset, but after using Now for a couple of weeks I really like how it intelligently figured stuff out about me. For instance, it guessed where I work (I had to confirm this on the screen), and so now I routinely get Now cards telling me how long I can expect to get to work as well as some info about travel conditions:
See how Now also picked up on another place I visited, and asked me whether I care about travel time to get there? In this case I declined, but it's a handy way to gauge your expected travel strategies if you are often on the go.
Getting up and running with Google Now
Now is available for Android 4.1.1 and iOS users. Android smartphones may already have Now installed by default, however, it is available to download if that is not the case. IPhone and iPad users can get Now by installing the iOS version of the Google Search app, where it can be installed through iTunes.
Once the app is present, there are a few ways to open it on an Android, depending on which version you have. Some models will let you swipe up from the bottom of the screen. Others will let you touch and hold the Home button to launch the app. My Motorola Droid requires me to open the Google icon on my Home Screen (the one with the blue "G"):
If you haven't used Google Now yet, a tutorial will launch. Click Next through the various pages, which will show you sample cards you can use.
Tap "Yes, I'm in" and the following notices will appear.
Once you click OK, the app will appear.
In the above screenshot, my version of Now was outdated and I was prompted to get the latest one available, which I proceeded to do by accepting the prompt and proceeding with the install. I then returned to the program and viewed a list of sample cards as shown below.
Weather is pretty straightforward, so I selected the option to display a sample card.
A sample card for a reminder looked as follows.
Flight information was shown as thus.
And sports scores were similar to the following.
Once cards appear to alert you of useful information you can swipe them to the right to close them.
It's possible to configure Google Now to show all cards or to turn off the ones you're not interested in. To do so, open Now, access the menu button, and choose Settings.
Tap "Google Now" to select the cards you want on or off.
If further customization is possible, you can tap the card to gain more settings. For instance, I scrolled down and tapped "Weather."
This allows me to set the Weather card to show me conditions in various places.
The full list of available cards (as of July, 2013) contains:
- Activity summary (exercise stats)
- Events nearby
- Gmail-related notifications (tickets, flights, hotels, package deliveries, restaurant reservations)
- New albums/books/TV episodes/video games
- News updates
- Next appointment
- Photo spots nearby
- Places (restaurants, bars, museums)
- Public alerts like weather warnings
- Public transit data
- Research topics
- Travel tools (currency exchange and language translation)
You can also set up Now to notify you if various things happen. Access the menu button, and choose Settings.
In my case I have all the notifications turned on. Public alerts has come in handy for cluing me into flash floods in my area and even a tornado warning at the office (which fortunately didn't hit).
My colleague Jack Wallen wrote a great piece earlier this month on using Google Now on an Android tablet. This article includes tips on how to enter your places, sports, and stocks as well as setting up the voice options. Jack also covered how to optimize Now to use your Google Search history. Rather than duplicate his efforts I recommend you check his column out to see how to flex the power of Now even further.
Speaking of the voice capability, it can work wonders to both serve and enlighten you. Open Now and you will see the microphone icon.
You can tape the microphone icon or just say "Google." Personally, I say "Hello, Google," since I try to be polite, even to artificially intelligent entities (thanks to "2001: A Space Odyssey").
The "Speak Now" screen will appear.
You can ask the voice assistant your question or make a request. I asked it to remind me to pack lunch tomorrow morning.
I then tapped "Set reminder" and the deal was done.
I tried asking "Who is the President of the United States?" The voice assistant verbally informed me that it is Barack Obama. I then asked "Who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1971?" The voice assistant didn't tell me, but it did present me with a list of websites that could help.
Questions about the meaning of life, what the voice assistant looks like and so forth resulted in further Google searches; it's evident that Google's version of the product is less whimsical than Apple's Siri. I was impressed by the program's ability to correctly decipher my voice input; not a word was mistranslated.
Digital Trends provides a list of Google voice commands which might prove useful:
- Who is the CEO of Google?
- What is the meaning of smartphone?
- Show me the stocks for Sony.
- What time is it in New York?
- Will it rain tomorrow?
- Show all hotels near me.
- Go to Digital Trends.
- What is 13 stones in kilograms?
- Premier league table.
- Play Blue Monday.
- Wake me up in an hour.
- Call Jenny.
- Images of the Empire State Building.
- When will BA 2215 land?
- When is my next appointment?
- Remind me to take out the trash when I get home.
- Launch Google
Google Now is a product that demonstrates the fulfilled promise of technology by helping us to navigate through the swamp of daily details. It's simple, easy to use, and provides immediate benefit. In just a couple of weeks I've become an addict and have found it useful both for work and recreation.
In case you are wondering, Google will be bringing Now to the Chrome browser soon. This will help provide it with a greater operating realm and further functions and cards, both business and consumer oriented, are undoubtedly forthcoming. For instance, Google is working on a customized news card for greater informational relevance for users.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.