At Google I/O, the company's yearly conference for web and Android developers, Google announced Google Now, a new app featured in its upcoming Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" operating system. Google Now is superficially similar to Siri, the "intelligent assistant" in Apple's iPhone 4S that answers questions posed to it in natural English. But unlike the existing Android alternatives to Siri, Google Now doesn't merely answer the questions you ask. It collects and remembers information about you, from what you search for on the web to where you go throughout the day, and has a home page with a series of "cards" about what it thinks that you want to see.
The result? Imagine if Siri could read your mind, and knew all the questions you'd asked recently and all the ones you were likely to ask.
But does it work?
That's what Dieter Bohn of The Verge tried to find out, when he got to use Google Now hands-on. According to Bohn, "The auto-population [of cards] is both a blessing and a curse. When it works, it works well"; your previous searches show up as cards, so you can just look at them and flip through them instead of having to ask the same question again every time. On the other hand, "you sometimes feel as though you don't have direct control over your cards," and it's not always easy to get the ones you want to see to show up in the right place.
What about privacy?
That's a question people have already asked about Siri. Technology Review's Brian Bergstein reports that IBM has disabled Siri on its employees' iPhones, due to concerns about "sensitive information" being uploaded to Apple's servers. Everything you say to Siri gets processed by Apple on remote computers, not just on the iPhone itself, and this fact has raised privacy concerns among security experts.
OK, but what about for Google Now?
The big privacy concern for Google Now is the same one people have had with Google for awhile: It remembers everything about you. So for instance, if you ask Google Now for directions to the airport after searching for flights and ticket prices, it basically knows where you're going. It will even follow you in the car if you have "location services" turned on, and will start showing you cards based on your daily routine, like details on traffic for your commute before you even leave.
Convenient, or creepy? Since there aren't many laws to keep Google from finding out everything about you if you use its services, only you can decide. Assuming you can get your hands on a device running the Jelly Bean version of Android, that is.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.
- Technology & Electronics