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The Google Now dilemma: Yes, it’s kind of creepy — but it’s also incredibly useful

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One of the reasons I decided to make the switch from using an iPhone to an Android phone — in addition to the freedom it allowed me from Apple’s walled garden — was that I was interested in trying out Google’s version of “augmented reality” search, namely Google Now. Although I’ve used it periodically over the past few months, the utility of it really started to hit home while I was on a recent trip to Europe and relied on my smartphone as a lifeline.

While there is something undeniably creepy about the Google Now service, I have to admit that it is also very useful — so much so that I couldn’t imagine going on a trip without it. I’m already imagining how it and other kinds of “anticipatory data” services (including Google News updates) might work through Google Glass.

Useful information when you need it

It’s not that Google Now is really all that revolutionary, in the sense of being surprising or magical or having whiz-bang special effects: it just collects a broad range of information about you and your activity from your search history, your calendar, your email, web services you are signed into, and so on, and then uses that to show you information that is relevant to what you are doing or where you happen to be (Google recently introduced it for iOS as well as Android).

Google Now

In a way, that could be part of the reason Google Now is so appealing — it doesn’t try to impress you, it just works silently in the background, in more or less the way you would expect it to. That in itself is something to be grateful for.

The first time I noticed myself depending on it (or at least noticing how useful it was), came when I was getting ready for my flight to Italy: sliding upwards from the home button on the Nexus 4 showed a series of Google Now “cards,” and the first one said that my flight had been delayed by an hour. Since I was panicking at that point about how much I still had to do before leaving for the airport, that information was incredibly helpful. I could take a bit more time and relax.

Meanwhile, the second Google Now card showed the traffic on the highway and told me that I should probably give myself more time than usual to get to the airport — and when I got closer to the time of my departure, a third card showed my boarding pass information, including boarding time and the gate number (Google Now got that info from my calendar, but it also supports scannable boarding passes for a limited number of airlines).

Google Now2

Not revolutionary, but evolutionary

Again, none of this information was specific to Google Now, or derived magically by Google search trickery: I could have easily found out about my flight being delayed by using a service like FlightStats, or by checking the website for the airline or the airport itself — and I could have checked the traffic on any number of sites. But the point is that doing these things would take time, and I was already pressed for time. Seeing it all displayed in front of me in a simple way, without me having to do anything, was exactly the kind of thing a virtual assistant is good for.

Google Now continued to perform this kind of function while I was travelling (once I got a local SIM card, of course, so that I wouldn’t get robbed by my carrier for roaming charges). It told me that my connecting flight in Munich was on time, which allowed me to prepare for possibly not making my connection — and once I arrived in Italy, it informed me of the weather, the traffic from the airport in Rome, and also showed me photos of nearby sights that I might want to visit.

These latter aspects were also very useful for someone visiting a foreign country: I didn’t have much use for them while I was at home, but they instantly became much more important when I was travelling. Like the flight information or traffic, I could have found that content myself by doing a web search — but it was much handier to have it displayed for me automatically. And I started to imagine what it might be like to simply look at something like the Colosseum with Google Glass and have information about it appear in front of my eyes. Geeky? Yes. But also hugely useful.

Google Now3

The privacy tradeoff is worth it

The part that clearly disturbs some people about Google Now is the data collection that is involved in making it work: the tracking of your web searches, your calendar appointments, your location via GPS, the photos you have posted, the flights you are preparing to take, and so on. There’s no question that this is invasive — and some users will undoubtedly decide that it’s not worth the tradeoff, and choose to keep the information to themselves. I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Are there ways Google could use this information that I might not like? Of course there are. But I trust that Google is aware enough of the dangers — both legal and commercial — of engaging in that kind of behavior that they will avoid it. While some may choose to see Google’s ambitions in this area as evil, I think the company’s goal remains the same: to provide services that encourage users to spend more time on the internet and produce more data that improves Google’s search and/or advertising algorithms. And I am okay with that.

In return for providing some anonymized data and behavior patterns, I get access to a personalized assistant that is not only more unobtrusive than any human version would be, but is also faster and completely free. That’s a pretty good bargain.

13 Responses to “The Google Now dilemma: Yes, it’s kind of creepy — but it’s also incredibly useful”

  1. Good article (really), but you just sold me on staying even farther away from Google than I was already doing.

    Yes, I know:my loss. I beg to differ. I will do quite fine without it.

  2. Todd Bloom

    I don’t see how it’s that useful, really.

    Weather? I have two apps that do it and provide much better information; Swackett and Yahoo Weather.

    Traffic? I hardly remember to open it and, even if I do, what does it tell me? How long I’ll be stuck in traffic. Nothing I can really do.

    Package tracking? How often do you get a package and, when you do, how hard is it to go into your mail to look. I mean why are you obsessively watching it any way when it’s not like it’ll make the package get there faster.

    Plane schedules? Check it once before you leave; what’s the big deal.

    Honestly, I enabled it once when it first was launched but I haven’t even gone back into the app since then. It’s kind of yawn-worthy.

  3. It would be really nice if tech journalists didn’t refer to every service that used info about you as “creepy.” The fact is that if you want intelligent services, those services will need to know about you, or they’ll be dumb and useless services. There is absolutely NOTHING creepy about Google Now in the least. It’s quite useful and prescient.

  4. John Edward Kind

    It’s great to read an article that “gets it.” Google collects data to help provide useful services and target advertisements (which in a way is also a service, the advertisements you see are more likely to be of interest, if you actually pay any attention to them, unlike me). It’s not an evil plot and it’s not a threat to society as we know it.

  5. davidwo

    I can’t believe how lazy we’ve become. Passive receptors.

    Save what, five minutes over 24 hours for information retrieval? That’s worth selling your privacy to Google, to let them track your every movement in intimate detail, to collate the data, to store it for marketing? Gawdalmighty.

    Next stop, holodeck. Why travel anywhere when you can have it delivered to you whilst sitting in the Lazy-Boy.

    • It’s not about being lazy or not. It’s about priorities.
      Also every time you go online (or even comment) there is someone tracking your every move. No need to get all worked up because Google is trying to use these data to help you sort things out.

  6. Anyone who would rely on a Google Now card indicating a flight delay as a reason for taking their time getting to the airport (beyond the normal check-in time) is just asking to get bumped. Plane swaps happen all the time, and if you’re not in place when the flight happens to go out earlier than the quoted delayed time, then you’re out of luck.

    On topic, I’m not yet that sold on Google Now on iOS. I’d want it to be a little more integrated and have things just pop up, without having to go to the search app manually. Granted, I’ve been iOS since June 2007 and have never really taken a look at Android. There’s my disclaimer.

    • Shame you are on iOS. There is a Google Now widget on Android that does exactly what you wanted (having reminders/alerts popup automatically.)