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.

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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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