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

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.