Yesterday my co-author and I traveled down to Google, a journey that for me has become something of a ritual. We met with the comms team for Google X, tested Google Glass, and took a spin in a self-driving car. And while those projects are fascinating and worthy of their own posts (or even chapters in the book), the most interesting meeting we had was with Johanna Wright, VP on the Android team responsible for Google Now.
Some of you might respond – “Google what?!” – and that’d be normal. Google Now is one of those products that to many users doesn’t seem like a product at all. It is instead the experience one has when you use the Google Search application on your Android or iPhone device (it’s consistently a top free app on the iTunes charts). You probably know it as Google search, but it’s far, far more than that. It’s the tip of a very important spear for Google, and if you study its architecture, all manner of interesting questions and insights can be found about where Google – and the Internet – may be headed.
When you fire up the Google search application on your phone, Google Now is all the bits that are not the familiar search bar. Here’s a screen shot of my Google Now “home page”:
As you can see, the search bar, which in a PC format is usually the *only* thing one sees, is most certainly not the main event. Certainly it’s at the top, and voice search is prominently featured (I could write 1,000 words just on voice search…another time, perhaps). But, the screen is dominated by “cards” of information – in this case a reminder of a call I have coming up (Google Now integrates with my calendar and contacts), as well as information about my drive home (Google Now knows I usually drive home in the afternoon). If I were to scroll down, more “cards” of information are shown, including local weather, points of interest, and sports scores (when the SF Giants were playing this past summer, I’d see scores – because Google Now knew I searched for “SF Giants scores” a lot).
These cards are extremely important to understanding where Google is heading with not only search, but with all of its various services (the card interface is now incorporated into Google’s “knowledge graph” search results, Google+, Gmail, and Google Maps, among many others). First, the cards “know” things about me – most critically my location, but also my search history, my calendar and contacts, my browsing history, key links in my Gmail, and more. They show up based on what interests and needs that Google believes will be most important to me. In essence, they are very tangible expressions of Google’s pivot from being a company that answers search queries, to being a company that anticipates your most important questions in real time, and answers them before you ask.
This, of course, has been the holy grail of tech for some time – predating Google and even Microsoft. But now that rich data streams course constantly through the silicon veins of a very personal mobile device, that long-held vision is becoming reality.
In short, Now is Google’s attempt at becoming the real time interface to our lives – moving well beyond the siloed confines of “search” and into the far more ambitious world of “experience.” As in – every experience one has could well be lit by data delivered through Google Now.
Google knows that this moment – the moment of our lives becoming data – is happening now, and the company is very, very focused on seizing it.
If you doubt my hyperbole, I’d not be surprised, but I tend to test such hyperbole on multiple senior sources working deeply inside Google. To each I posited this question: “Is Google Now one of the most important products at Google today?” Each answered emphatically yes.
To see why, consider this message, which popped up on my screen as I was preparing to write this post:
This is Google, asking me if I’d like to let selected people know where I am, in real time, during my daily commute. Of course, I can only share that status with people who are also Google+ users (no option to share on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc) – and that’s my point. First, questions like these are habituating us to the idea of sharing intimate information about ourselves with others, in real time. Second, a feature like this is *only* available to Google Now because of its integration with Google+ – one platform is reinforcing the other. Will Google let others play in this sandbox? Such a feature raises a very important question about what kind of world we want to live in – a world dominated by tightly integrated vertical platforms, or a world, as David Weinberger elegantly stated it, made up of small pieces loosely joined?
It was this question that weighed on my mind as I sat down with Johanna Wright yesterday. Since introducing Google Now (and the extremely related Google Knowledge Graph), the company has introduced more than 40 cards – cards for hotels, car rentals, and other travel information (like boarding passes), cards for movies, events, music and local businesses, cards tracking your activity (like walking, biking, etc.), and cards for nearby restaurants. There’s even a card that listens to your TV and tells you what music is playing.
Sound familiar? It should, because, to put it in words we can all understand: There’s an app for that. Or rather, there are apps for each of those. Let me list just a few of them, in order what what I laid out above: Hotel Tonight, Expedia, Lyft, Sidecar, Travelocity; Fandango, NetFlix, Hulu, iTunes, Spotify, Eventful, Yelp, Foursquare; Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Fuelband, Human; OpenTable, Urban Spoon; Shazam.
Google Now supplants the need to open an app by surfacing cards – cards that magically turn into just the information you need, when you need it – *without having to go to an app to get it.*
You following where this is going? Google is potentially disrupting the app world much the way its Universal Search disrupted major web properties - taking the most valuable service or information, and surfacing it up for free. You may recall that universal search was quite controversial when it came out, because it appeared to favor surfacing Google-owned properties, such as YouTube, Finance, and Maps, over other web properties. Now, six years later, Universal search is, well universal, and that debate, which included an FTC investigation, is over. Google properties won.
It’s worth noting that a key product manager for Universal Search was Johanna Wright, now the VP over Google Now. With all this in mind, I asked Wright about Google’s plans for Now: Would it be an open platform, where third parties can compete to be surfaced based on merit, or would favored services win out? And would various commercial products and services be able to pay to get integrated into Now’s suggestions and services?
Wright was understandably careful with her words when approaching this question. She declined to talk about monetization and business models for Now, but she did note that Google’s overall philosophy was one that favored the open web. The key, she said, was that Google get the user experience for Now right. The business model will come later (though she did note that Google Offers was already integrated into Now).
While Wright deferred comment on Now’s business model, I have no doubts there are plenty of folks inside Google thinking long and hard about the next steps the company will take to monetize Wright’s work. For now (no pun intended), Google Now is, in the main, a closed platform – surfacing only information that Google has deemed worthy of being surfaced, and integrating on a selective basis with only those services that Google believes will add value its consumers (Google’s restaurant card, for example, integrates with OpenTable). Just as it did with search, Google is angling to control a key moment of a person’s daily life and attention – the point at which we lift our phone up to receive new information. When and if Google Now become ubiquitous, I can certainly imagine that the question of access and fairness will once again be raised. This movie, it seems, is fated to play out once again.