Emerging Tech investigate

Google Now: The future of big data and Android's game-changer

While Google Now raises plenty of privacy hackles, it's also a stunningly useful example of the power of big data and a major advantage for Android.

Android's new Google Now widget

This week Google released its latest update to Google Now on Android, including a handy new homescreen widget and a bunch of new options that make the predictive search tool more tuned into your interests than ever. If you want to see the future of what big data and predictive analytics are going to be able to do, then Google Now offers an increasingly powerful glimpse.

I first brushed into Google Now last fall when I was testing the Nexus 7 tablet, one of the first devices to get the Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" release that debuted Google Now. On the Nexus 7, Google Now was either enabled by default or I turned it on accidentally, so I was surprised when all of the sudden it started sending me unprompted alerts about the weather and stocks and the status of packages I had ordered.

While at first I was oddly curious and slightly miffed that Google was digging into my search history and email when I hadn't explicitly given it permission to do so, I got over that feeling pretty quickly once I realized the value I was getting out of Google Now. It didn't take me long to think, "I want this on my phone so that I have access to it all the time."

Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long. In October, Samsung released Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" for the Galaxy S3 (i9300 unlocked international version) that I had recently started using as my business phone. Once Google Now was on a device that I was using every day, I quickly discovered even more things that it could do. The latest update to Google Now this week has only upped the ante.

Google Now's usefulness

Here are what I found to be some of the most practical and interesting things that Google Now does:

  • Driving and traffic alerts - It doesn't take long for Google Now to figure out your home location and your work location and the times you typically leave to go to work and leave to go home. Then, it prompts you about half an hour before you leave to let you know the approximate drive time based on current traffic conditions.
  • Meeting alerts - If you use Google Calendar with Gmail or Google Apps, Google Now will add your meetings notices to its alerts. That's not a huge deal since the Android Calendar app can already alert you of meetings. However, if you have location information entered for your meetings then it will alert you, for example, 38 minutes before the meeting to tell you that you need to leave now in order to make it to the meeting on time based on current traffic conditions.
  • Flight alerts - If you have flight confirmations in your email, Google Now automatically grabs the information and then sends you alerts and updates on those flights, including digital boarding passes for a few airlines.
  • Practical travel info - When I was traveling to the UK and Italy last fall, Google Now automatically prompted me with time zone, currency, and translation information.
  • Shipped package alerts - Google Now recognizes shipping notices in your email and turns them into glanceable alerts.
  • Sports alerts - You can tell Google Now your favorite sports teams and it will alert you when your teams are playing, provide game updates, and show the final scores afterward.

It doesn't always work

Before you get too excited about Google Now, you also need to know that it has its erratic moments and false positives. Big data is still imperfect.

Here are a few examples:

  • It occasionally prompts me with directions to local places I searched for in Google, but would never actually visit, like the office of a plumber.
  • It shows me alerts for events that I have no interest in and I'm not sure what would have triggered the alerts, other than spam in my inbox.
  • There are times when I expect it to give me an update or information about something (like a flight I'm taking, for example), and the alert never shows up.
  • I increased the frequency that I wanted to see news and stock updates and yet I still rarely ever see any Google Now "cards" on either of those things.

Why it's significant

Despite its hiccups, Google Now clearly offers enough value to outweigh its imperfections as well as its obvious squishiness around privacy -- at least for me. But, the more important thing to note about Google Now is that it shows us what's going to be possible when the rest of the world gets its act together on big data.

This kind of stuff will be a victory for customizable dashboards and personalized data, and that will help us automatically sort through a lot more data more quickly. But, it's also going to raise our hackles on privacy in ways that we've barely anticipated because you can infer lots of things about people and organizations by mashing together data sources that are traditionally locked away in separate silos.

This is powerful stuff. And the companies that learn how to use it to their advantage can use it to leapfrog their competitors.

If you take the example of Google Now, it's easy to see how it gives Android a strategic advantage over other mobile platforms. Windows analyst Paul Thurrott recently wrote about Google Now: "That kind of deep online services integration is amazing. Simply amazing. And it's starting to make Windows Phone look a little, well, static by comparison."

Of course, it's not just Windows Phone that should be worried. This is just as big a threat to Apple iPhone.

Between Google Now and the Android notification system (which I previously called Android's one killer feature that trumps the iPhone), I keep finding myself drawn into my Android phone more or more. I had previously used it primarily for my work email, IM, and calendar while using an iPhone (my personal phone) for almost everything else. The continuing improvements to Google Now and Android notifications in the latest versions of Android are changing that, and that's what Apple should be worried about.

Also read

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

28 comments
johojo
johojo

Re notions of "privacy". Consider that James Burke (in the book "Connections", about relationships among things we take for granted) points to the invention of the chimney (in Northern Europe in the 12th century) as the source of our concern for privacy. That innovation made it possible to build apartments (literally, "spaces apart") where, along with other cultural developments, the idea of privacy was born to evolve into what many people regard as a right. Before that, in cold climates people, huddled together in large rooms near a fire and simply ignored (as best they might) other people's doings. Who knows. Maybe the effect of these persistent intrusions on "privacy" will be to make people more tolerant of others, less concerned for maintaining some prudish pretense of "rectitude". Maybe concerns for privacy are what make people so damned hypocritical!

ads411
ads411

Have been using Google Now for a couple weeks. So far I like it. All these people acting so offended and paranoid, what are you doing that is so bad you have to keep it a secret? Someone who tracks my movements is seriously in danger.....of being bored to death.

phil_simon
phil_simon

Good analysis, Jason. I am with you. Google Now might make a few people queasy, but when the pros outweigh the cons, I think that most will get over it pretty quickly.

bike1967br
bike1967br

A OS that invades your privacy and have a lot of security problems (170.000 viruses running on Android at the end of 2012) is a very problematic combination. Imagine if all personal information that could leak from your device if a virus invade your phone and steal everything, mostly if the device, against your will, already had combined your bank data, personal preferences, and all of your "big data"

nathanstrimling
nathanstrimling

On a recent trip it displayed cards with my electronic boarding passes. Scanned my phone and I'm on the plane. Kept me updated on flight status as well. Let's me know when I'm leaving work or home if traffic is bad on my route. This is the promise of the electronic personal assistant I've been waiting for starting to come to fruition.

mobilesite
mobilesite

Hi Jason. Nice post. I am amazed by the number of features that Google offer. Am sure there are many people out there who love to keep track of various types of info and data about travel and sports. And these features look absolutely in sync with what most people would like to have at their disposal.

phlcidrolin
phlcidrolin

If I was an insurance broker, I sure would like to know which ones of my customers spent time in a hospital in the months before they subscribed health coverage... Or who in my circles came very suddenly to a stop on the freeway while riding on the fast lane between two exits... Do you think we can expect that kind of service soon ? I just can't wait...

footprintless
footprintless

"Google was digging into my search history and email when I hadn’t explicitly given it permission to do so." And you were only "miffed"? This article smells like a paid endorsement. Does anyone want ANYBODY digging into their search history and email for any reason? This article would make you think it's a small matter. It's not. I don't need Google or any other supercorporation "gaining new insights" into me. This more than just creepy, it's alarming. Sorry to see Jason is now such a gung hu promoter of zero privacy.

plkiger
plkiger

And seriously, how much easier have we made the jobs of criminals everywhere. Now there won't just be lists of stolen credit card numbers they can buy, they can let them know where you are, if there's anything valuable arriving in a package while you're at work, and anything the government ever wants to know about an individual without a warrant will be right there. A one stop shop. Way too creepy for me. I like my privacy.

IAFarm2
IAFarm2

I have absolutely no interest in being "that connected". Barely enuf time now to do "real work" and spend quality time with family or "just chill". As my screen-name indicates, the reason why I "farm too" is to get away from it. I could garden, hang in a bar, play at other hobbies, or whatever, but I'm not so insecure or egotistical that I have to be "interacting with everything" all the time. ( And if I don't really need it, I'm not buying it ! )

jeb.hoge
jeb.hoge

I love Google Now, and it makes me wish I had a more travel-heavy lifestyle because I think it'd be absolutely brilliant then.

jeffgoldstein1000
jeffgoldstein1000

I have a feeling the author has no idea of what big data is, because as descriped above big data ha nothing to do with this. Maybe the author should go back to school and read up on the current technologies.

fremonty
fremonty

I would almost pay for this. I currently have apps that search my email looking for things like flight itineraries to my supposedly "smart" phone can tell me about my flight without me having to explicitly first tell my phone.

eoschlotz
eoschlotz

This is creepy. There is no amount of benefit that justifies this much snooping on my life.

dogknees
dogknees

.. even though you might have the information, it might be illegal for you to use it in the way you think! I don't care what anyone knows about me. I do care if they treat me differently because of it. Big difference.

ads411
ads411

better look out, we are watching you.... lol

dogknees
dogknees

But how would you know what I or anyone else might want? Or our reasons for it?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Well, unless you remove the battery from your phone when not specifically using it on a call anyway. "authorities", to use the term loosely, have been getting tracking data from the phone company since they first started handing out mobile phones.

oldman60
oldman60

Knowledge graph is big data. Giving you the right information at the right time requires analytic on huge collection of information.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

The main thrust of big data is layering different data sources on top of each other to gain new insights. Most often, this means taking your traditional internal data warehouse and layering public data sources like data.gov or social media data (mining it for sentiment analysis, for example) and the combination of the two reveals news insights. In the case of Google Now, it is clearly taking multiple data sources and combining them together in new ways to provide valuable information. For more on big data, see our joint TechRepublic/ZDNet special feature on the topic: http://www.zdnet.com/topic-making-the-business-case-for-big-data/

jjustice
jjustice

Every EULA out there basically says "we will use your data to our advantage and maybe yours". Privacy almost can not happen when you are in range of nearly any cell phone. THe backgrounds of pictures can be used to determine the location where a photo was taken. your camera and microphones onyour computer can be hacked. if you havn't learned to turn the thing off (and maybe even remove the battery) you can be watched.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I agree with the creepy angle. It's worse when you consider that FISA which Obama renewed and enhanced Christmas 2012. The US intellegance agencies can access and harvest any non-US citizen's data that happens to be stored on US company servers without warrant, notice or probable cause. On the other hand, Google is already using all your Android related and other Google service hosted data. They already know what Google Now knows because it helps them sell ads better. The user, who's data it actually is, may as well enjoy some of the benefits the hosting company already enjoys. If your using Android OS then using Google Now really doesn't increase your exposure.

calito44
calito44

Is not that the cellphone is stalking you, recording what are you doing, where you are, where you will go, at what time you are driving to work at what time you return, what routes you take, at what store you commnonly stop in the way to buy some groceries and later send all this information to a server somewhere :D.....

dogknees
dogknees

I was under the (probably mistaken) impression that the term big data originated in the physics community when they needed to deal with experiments that produce petabytes of data per second or more. Volumes that simply couldn't be processed and analysed even by the biggest fastest systems of the time. To me, it it's not BIG unless it's bigger than normal transactional data, even if you are Boeing and it's your BOM database! For example, looking at several decades of data rather than just the usual 12 to 24 months.

dogknees
dogknees

I'm not really interested in "marketing" defining IT terminology. Or, for that matter, anything marketing tells me. I'm interested in the science, math, and technology primarily.

Menopausal
Menopausal

The only way I've heard Big Data used is in the marketing context; layering social media info, public data and private data. As Hiner's example, using your GPS location with public DOT travel estimates and the user's specific travel patterns. Old-school examples would be the fact that many people buy a new car within 6 months of buying a new house, so market cars to people who've taken out a mortgage in the past few months.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

.. is another term that changes meaning depending on the given context. When your talking about storage, big data is indeed petabyte databases. It also easily refers to analysis of petabyte data sets or data sets combined from multiple sources. Neither usage is incorrect really.