For the past decade Google CEO Larry Page has said, “The perfect search engine would really understand whatever your need is. It would understand everything in the world deeply, give you back kind of exactly what you need.” Recent initiatives like Knowledge Graph, a Wikipedia-slash-WolframAlpha-like information database, and Google Now, a robotic assistant that tells users when their flight is departing, how to beat traffic, and what the weather’s like, show Google’s commitment to this future. In other words: Page’s decade-old vision is starting to come into focus.
Page most recently brought this vision up during an interview with Fortune, which went up after reports that Google would be bringing Now to its Chrome browser, making the leap from Android “Jelly Bean” devices and over to the desktop. This would make Google’s personal assistant the first to successfully operate on mobile and desktop devices – Apple’s Siri, which the company acquired from Siri Inc., is currently restricted to iOS devices, and other solutions, like the recently-launched Grokr, are iPhone-only.
There have also been hints that Google plans on bridging the gap between Chrome and the television set. This would put Chrome on desktops, Android tablets and phones, the iPhone, the iPad, and television sets. Or, put another way: Just about every device that matters.
Some are concerned by our AI-powered future. As Richard Nieva reported last week, companies working in this field accept that they’ll have to tread lightly. Though the benefits of a robotic assistant may outweigh the perceived invasion of privacy to Google, Grokr, and other companies working in the space, some think that they have to take things slow so as to not “freak out” the users.
But, on the flip-side, it’s important to remember that customers can get over privacy concerns if they see real value. A vocal minority may take issue with Facebook’s privacy settings, for example, but the average user doesn’t care – the same goes for Google’s other products, like Gmail, which “reads” every message passing through the service. Some may abandon the product to protect their privacy, but many more are willing to deal with it simply so they won’t have to go back to Yahoo or AOL’s solutions.
And let’s not forget Google’s vanilla search engine itself. Google knows what you searched for, when you searched for it, and what you did after the search. This is how Google Now is able to detect whether or not you like the Giants or the Packers (or whatever sports team is most likely to convince you to riot). Then Now parses Gmail, which Google was already mining for data anyway, to detect plane tickets, meetings, and other bits of information and surface them when it will be most useful.
These are things that companies like Apple simply aren’t able to do at scale. Apple doesn’t operate a search engine. Its mail service (which has changed numerous times over the years) doesn’t have nearly the reach that Gmail does, and it doesn’t have the advantage of mining data from a significant portion of the devices on the market. Apple’s Siri is able to search WolframAlpha, Yelp, and Wikipedia, sure, but it still requires users to ask a question in search of a specific response.
Google Now wants to eliminate the asking. And damn it, I for one am happy to let it do so. If I have a meeting set in Google Calendar (which I do), an email confirming the time and location (I do), and I’m going to use Google Maps to find out how to get to that location (which I will), why shouldn’t Google be able to do that for me? I’m already using Google to plan, schedule, find, get to, and (hopefully) arrive on time to my meetings – Google Now simply removes all of the middlemen.
All of this is useful on a smartphone. We’ve got the things within arm’s reach most of the time anyway. But branching out to other platforms and being able to remind me that I need to get ready while I’m catching up on a TV show or sitting at my laptop with my phone in the other room would be even better.
This expansion won’t be without its own set of problems, including that ever-important “how are we making money off of this?” question. While I don’t think that Google will go quite as ad-heavy as this Google Glass parody video suggests, I do think that Google Now will be ad-supported, like most of Google’s other products. That might pose a problem, given other companies’ (ahem, Facebook) difficulties monetizing mobile, but don’t rule Google out.
Google is laying the groundwork for a Now takeover, using its position as the most popular search company operating the most popular Web browser and the most popular mobile operating system to redefine what “Googling” something really means. Google used to be a destination – now (no pun intended) it’s a persistent presence.