I’ve been an Android user for three years now. We’ve been through ups and downs, but ultimately I’m happy with the platform and the flexibility it allows me. Yesterday morning, I awoke to see that Jelly Bean was available and downloaded it without a second thought or any research. I’ve only spent a day with it and the differences have been subtle – a new loading animation (sadly), a different lock screen, a few little visual things here and there. Late last night as I was getting ready to go to bed, my finger slipped, and that’s how I learned that the new lock screen actually allows me to access something brand new: Google Now.
If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of Google Now, take a look at their website. (The video, like most Google demos, is worth a watch and very well done.) The idea is one that mobile manufacturers have been pushing for years: All The Things You Need, Right At Your Fingertips. I’ve become skeptical of this line of thinking over the years, because it seems every new solution comes at a cost. I’ve watched friends of mine with iPhones use Siri to great enjoyment exactly as often as I’ve watched them repeat the same question four times over and ultimately not get the information they need, resorting to traditional search methods. It’s one of the most difficult problems to solve, because while there certainly are categories of users and lots of research to go on, everyone is different, and a device put in someone’s hand is inevitably going to be used for something you never even expected.
Google Now works off of “cards” and promises to give you information at the moment you need it – the weather when you wake up in the morning, the scores from your favorite teams, flight details when you’re on the way to the airport – but the information given to you when you sign up for it through your phone doesn’t really say “how” that’s going to work. A cursory glance at it last night showed a few things that I could see being useful to me, such as schedules for upcoming lines when you’re near a transit station. Could be useful, could be a huge battery drain. Nonetheless, I decided to enable it and let it learn from my behavior for a couple of days.
One of the greatest benefits to me as an Android user is that my life is incredibly google-heavy. I sit at a computer most of the day and really don’t use my cell phone much, because I work from home and it feels really silly to grab my 3.5″ screen when I’ve got two 23″ screens in front of me. I’m a heavy hitter when I’m out of the house, but those moments are far from constant. One thing I’ve always appreciated is that when I search on Google Maps from my desktop and then perform the same search from my phone, the information I recently looked for is right there in my hand as a recent search. It’s not a huge time saver, but it is convenient. When I took a three week road trip this summer, I can’t express how often I needed that feature.
My boyfriend and I are attending a wine tasting party tonight, and he volunteered to pick up a bottle for us. He didn’t know a good wine shop, and I happen to know one around the corner from his office. Before he left this morning, I looked up their address on our laptop, closed the tab, and didn’t think anything else of it. Fast forward to a few hours later when I checked my notifications bar, and here’s what I found:
It took me a couple of minutes to figure out why my phone was subtly hinting at me that it wanted a drink. Then, I realized this was actually Google Now doing the job it promised to do!
Clicking on it takes me to my Google Now homepage, where I can access all of my cards. I was pretty impressed so far, but a little disappointed that this wouldn’t be a feature that’s terribly relevant to me – I don’t drive. I walk, I ride a bike, and I take transit. The driving option would be really useful on vacation, but that represents a fraction of my time.
Clicking on the map gives the traditional Android options for which app you’d like to use. I’ll most likely end up setting this to Maps, always, because I rarely use Google Earth.
The real strength in Google Now lies in its settings. Don’t want to be bothered by these notifications all the time? Change their priority. If you’re not like me and don’t want your Google searches linked, that’s okay too – you can turn that off with the very top setting. And then there’s the one that means the most to me – driving.
I don’t like to engage in platform wars; I think that whatever works for you is the tool you should use, period. I was giving consideration to switching to the new iPhone, in fact, right up until I heard that they removed Google Maps and now there are no transit or walking directions. Figuring out how to get from where I am to somewhere else on public transit is one of my most-used features, so that’s a complete dealbreaker for me. It warms my heart to see Google’s commitment to those of us who choose to not drive.
Immediately, my card updates to the directions that are relevant to me. And it’s even got the BART overlay!
I haven’t taught it much about me so far, but it has figured out that I’m a Giants fan. I’m currently learning that its in-game updates are really great as well. I love my MLB at-bat app for lots of reasons, but the new Google Now box score certainly is attractive (and easy to check in on while I look at other things).
As I’d hoped, my notifications bar is updated with my new transit directions. Since I’ve set that as my default setting for all “traffic” related things, it should continue to do so.
I’m really, really excited about this new feature. One more way to link what I do at my desk to what I need to do when I’m out in the wild. One nice thing is that while it appears in my notifications bar, it doesn’t work the same way that, say, a text notification does. No icon in the top bar, no noise made by my phone. There might be an option to change that, but I prefer it this way – background information there with the swipe of a finger, not making me rush across the room only to find out that it was just updating me on a traffic situation. Definitely looking forward to seeing how this feature develops over time.