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Google's data tentacles burrow deeper into smart phone apps with expanded Voice Control

By Nathaniel Mott , written on May 1, 2015

From The News Desk

Google has found a new way to make its products seem ubiquitous: Allowing consumers to command Android applications with its Voice Control feature.

Voice Control is the tool that allows people to ask Google questions or perform basic tasks on their Android smartphones. All they have to say is "OK Google..." make a query, and wait while the software does its best to fulfill their request.

The feature used to be restricted to Google's properties. Now, however, it can be used to perform basic tasks in third-party apps like Shazam or TripAdvisor. Controlling a smartphone with nothing but voice commands is easier than ever.

And, of course, that convenience is matched with Google's not-so-subtle effort to insert itself between consumers and third-party apps. Want to listen to NPR? Sure, just say "OK Google" first. Want to identify a song with Shazam? Same.

Voice Control's expansion follows a similar addition to Google Now released in January. Instead of only showing "cards" filled with data scraped from Google's various services, the tool now gathers information from other services, pulling them from their applications and shuffling them into Google Now's software.

At the time, I argued that this was a way for Google to collect more data:

Google knows almost everything already, but it’s not satisfied with 'almost.' For all the things it doesn’t know, it seems the plan is to partner with other companies to gather this information.  And, by saving consumers a few taps whenever they want to use their phones, Google will likely convince consumers it’s a trade-off worth making. After all, the main reason Google has survived (and thrived) this long is because it can make convenience trump privacy.
I stand by that argument. But now that Google's expanded Voice Control, too, I think it's clear that the company is trying to do the same thing with apps that it did with the Web: Convince consumers that it's the gateway to their desires.

It makes sense for consumers, because on the Web Google search is already the gateway to instant gratification. Interested in a new store? Curious about that landmark? Looking to buy something? All you have to do is head to Google and it will scour the Web to find whatever you're searching for.

But smart phones and apps were supposed to be different. Apps don't hide behind URLs, they appear as pretty icons on a smartphone's home screens. Their information isn't open to Google's spiders, it's contained within the application's confines. This has limited Google's power on smartphones-- app store rankings are the metric entrepreneurs are gaming to get users, not paid and organic search listings.

But with Voice as a Trojan Horse, Google can change that. Want to check on something real quick? Forget about loading a single app, just check Google Now's stack of data-rich cards. Need to perform a simple task? Don't tap something out, just talk to Google.

Unless you make a conscious effort to use applications on their own terms -- or simply want to do something even Google can't enable with these tools -- it's going to become easier and easier to interact with Google instead of other apps.

All you have to do is say "OK Google."

For all the talk that Android and Apple are inherently different philosophies-- one open and one closed-- Google's tentacles reaching into apps in the name of more cohesive user experience are certainly looking Apple-esque.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]