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App of the Week: Google Now

If you want the Star Trek computer, you're going to have to give your entire life over to the Starship Enterprise


Andrew Leonard
May 5, 2013 10:00PM (UTC)

Like any good geek, I want my own Star Trek computer. You know, like the one that spoke with Majel Barrett's voice and was able to answer any question Captain Kirk or Picard might pose, in depth, and then take action as directed. Apple's Siri might be a step on the way there, but Siri, so far, at least, has some severe limitations. Like, I'm not really sure she truly understands me.

So I was delighted to hear the news this week that Google's "Siri-killer," Google Now, had finally been released for the iOS platform. Google has made it absolutely clear that one of the company's prime directives is to create a working Star Trek computer. Google seems as likely as anyone to get there first.

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A voice-activated interface that works directly with Google Search is  an obvious good idea. More intriguingly, Google's promises for Google Now go far beyond simply helping you find your way to the nearest sushi restaurant. By leveraging what Google knows about you from your email, your calendar, your search history and your location, Google Now is supposed to be able to provide answers to your questions before you even ask them. That's super exciting! And way creepy! But still exciting. Who cares about privacy when you can have Star Trek in your pocket?

Here's how it works -- or is supposed to work. You wake up in the morning, look at your phone, click the Google Now app, and you are proactively warned that because it is raining, your commute to the city is going to take longer than you might have imagined, so you might want to leave earlier or consider an alternate route. Oh, and here's your boarding pass for that flight to New York this afternoon, the next Warriors playoff game is Monday, there's a new restaurant around the corner that serves the kind of spicy Sichuan food you like so much, and the blender you ordered from Amazon is supposed to arrive today.

That's the promise, anyway. The reality is a bit more prosaic. Google Now provides its proactive guidance via "cards" that it shuffles up at the bottom of the Google Now screen. The "cards" are divided into 15 categories: weather, traffic, appointments, stocks, Gmail, flights, travel and so on. Each category is individually configurable -- you can instruct Google Now not to scan your email for Amazon package tracking information, for example, or to refrain from providing regular stock price updates for the companies that you've been searching for information on.

I turned everything on I possibly could, but don't yet have a lot to report. Google Now is good at reading my calendar, telling me the current weather and keeping me updated on my favorite sports teams, but has yet to show me that it's learned anything interesting from my search history or travel habits or email. There's no sign, for example, that Google has spotted that I have an Amazon package on the way. There's also one huge drawback. Google Now is incapable of sending push notifications on the iOS platform. This is a killer. What good are proactive reminders if you have to remember first to check the app? I don't want to go to the mountain. The mountain needs to come to me.

From the reports of correspondents who've been able to spend significant time with Google Now on Android phones, the utility of the app appears to grow as one uses it more. That makes sense. You can't understand someone without getting to know them. But there's a trap here. To make Google Now work to its highest capacity, one has to live almost entirely within the Google ecology. Google Now needs to be connected to the Gmail account that you use for airplane and hotel and car reservations and to order goods online. You need to be using Google Calendar and Google Maps. To use the Star Trek computer you've got to live your life entirely on the Starship Enterprise. Talk about your network lock-in! The privacy implications are obviously huge. 

Is it worth it? Or, more to the point, will it be worth it? Right now, Google Now is mostly a demonstration in principle of something that potentially can be amazing. But the most obvious analysis to make about Google Now is that it is the kind of thing that will inevitably improve. I've already been quite impressed at the quality of Google's voice-activated search -- Siri has a real competitor there. And I'm looking forward to traveling this summer with my new personal assistant and seeing how well it works. The synergies with Google Glass seem obvious. Maybe too obvious! I wanted the Star Trek computer, but I'm beginning to wonder if instead I'm about to become Commander Data.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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App Of The Week Google Google Now Must-do Siri Star Trek Star Trek Computer

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