Google Now advances search, aims for Apple's Siri

Analysts warn new voice feature could be helpful, kind of creepy

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google is taking search to another level.

At the company's annual Google I/O developer conference, Google showed off the latest upgrade to its Android operating system - Android 4.1 or Jelly Bean, as it's more likely known. And one of the more interesting aspects of Jelly Bean is the Google Now smart assistant.

Want to know about interesting restaurants as you walk down can tell you -- and even offer an alternate route.

The new search-based feature is designed to use your search history, calendar, location and Google Maps to offer up helpful information, whether you've missed your train or need an update on your next flight.

"From the very beginning, Android had search at its core," said Hugo Barra, director of Google Product Management, during today's conference keynote. " Now, we've got faster and more natural voice search.... We're showing you search results in a novel way."

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said that while Google Now is being released with Android 4.1 for mobile devices, he expects it eventually will go beyond that.

"I'd also expect to see Google extend these capabilities onto other platforms, like PCs, through [a] user's Google accounts," he added. "This way, you can have your PC pick up right where your phone left off when it comes to hectoring you about sending a birthday card to your favorite aunt."

The Google Now voice service is an obvious competitor to Apple's Siri, which was introduced with the iPhone 4S last fall.

And while Apple has a head start with Siri by being first and getting a lot of mainstream media attention, not all of that attention has been positive. Some people have complained that Siri isn't as helpful or seamless as they had hoped.

With the hundreds of millions of Android users and Siri still getting complaints, Google has an opportunity if Google Now works well, according to industry analysts.

"If the smartphone market was a poker game, Google just matched and raised Apple's Siri bet," said Olds. "While Siri has a nice slate of features, Google Now looks to be coming out of the gate with most, if not all, of the same functionality, but with all of Google behind it, plus what could be a massive amount of developer interest."

Google Now is the logical next step for Google search, said Brad Shimmin, an analyst with CurrentAnalysis.

"Google is moving from being an information infrastructure company to a company empowering the human condition -- the human infrastructure," said Shimmin. "Google Now makes sense because it puts Google's areas of expertise, such as Maps and search, to work where and when they can have the greatest impact -- on our mobile devices in real-time."

And it's going to be a strong challenger to Siri, he added.

"It differs from Siri in that it isn't simply a search or task automation tool that understands natural language," said Shimmin. "Instead, it's a natural language knowledge service. I think the current dissent surrounding Siri stems not from the technology, but from the way users must interact with that technology. Both Apple and Google will need to improve the way users interface with these systems to make them less intrusive, more natural and overall less annoying to those within earshot."

However, in order to be able to remind you about an upcoming meeting or to warn you about the weather before you plan to bike to work, Google Now needs to know a lot of information about you, what you've done in the past, what you're doing right now and what you'll most likely be doing in the days or months ahead.

And that could be an issue for a lot of people.

"It can be very helpful in a lot of situations, but it could also be skin crawlingly creepy when users stop to think about how much Google knows about their interests and habits," said Olds. "Over time, the Google Now assistant can potentially become very powerful, and thus more helpful, as it learns more about user likes, dislikes, and routines. But in order to do this, Google will need to track, log, correlate, and hold onto much more information.

"That's where the creepiness comes in."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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