By now you’ve probably heard that Google has brought Google Now, its virtual assistant, to iOS. And it’s true — Google has brought Google Now’s most-obvious feature, the information-packed Cards that tell users about the weather, traffic, flight information, and a whole slew of other categories, to the iPhone and iPad. But this isn’t the Google Now that’s been shipping on Android devices for the last year. It’s a less-functional imitation of itself that, despite all that it offers, serves as yet another reminder of how difficult it is to develop comprehensive services on Apple’s platform.
Google Now is a filter that gathers all kinds of information and presents it at the best possible moment – when it works, anyway. It’s a gateway that puts Google at the center of everything users might want to know, see, or do. Its ability to scrape information from Google Search, Calendar, and Gmail is only part of its appeal; the ability to present that information and insert itself into every aspect of the computing experience is much of the rest. (Whether or not that excites or frightens you depends largely on how much you’re willing to trust — or at least utilize — Google.)
Twitter was alight with proclamations that Google Now’s coming to iOS was a big step for the service — and it is — and, once again, shows that Google is taking Apple’s platforms seriously. Being available for just about any iOS device offers a broader reach than Google Now has on Android, where it’s available on just 25 percent of devices due to its reliance on relatively new versions of the operating system (4.1 and 4.2) and Android’s well-documented fragmentation. Still, there’s a difference between being available in a limited form on a bunch of devices and being available as it was intended on a slightly smaller subset of devices.
Google Now is, predictably, able to insert itself very well into the Android experience. It’s always a swipe away, and it can display information on the lock screen as well as within its own confines. Google Now is less a tool Android users access and more a ubiquitous aspect of modern Android smartphones. But Google hasn’t — and probably couldn’t — emulate that experience on the iPhone or iPad. Such are the perks of building your own operating system, and the drawbacks of developing on top of another company’s. Where Google is free to modify Android to better support its own services, it has to play by Apple’s rules when it wants to expand to iOS.
Accessing Google Now through the Google Search app on the iPhone or iPad feels like using a ghost of the Android service that happened to be developed by the same company. Sure, many of the Cards are the same, but this isn’t the future of search, or Google, which aims to offer information before someone even knows what he should be searching for. Google Now living within the Google Search app is merely an augmented Search app, not a true Google Now experience.
Google CEO Larry Page said during last week’s earnings call that Google’s goal with Google Now is to “get you the right information at just the right time.” On Android that works by becoming an integral part of the operating system itself, buzzing and chirping with each new bit of pertinent information as it’s fetched. The iOS version of Google Now can offer the right information whenever you remember to fetch it, going into the Google Search app, swiping to get to your Cards, and waiting for the app to update.
Maybe they should’ve called it “Google If You Remember” instead.