Understanding Google Now Gambit

As an android user it’s hard not to notice Google Now. The ever present, mostly useful, sometime intrusive “personal assistant” from Google. An innovative and increasingly critical part of android experience. While it has been one of the most delightful (or fearful depending on your perspective) product build “inside” Google after Google Search, it has also been one of the least understood products too. Most of the us look at Google Now as nothing more than a user experience tweak powered by data. This is a very simplistic viewpoint, which misses the long-term strategic brilliance behind Google Now.

We think of Google Now as something, which save user from the ordeal of searching for an app in a grid of icons, locating relevant piece of content inside the app and acting on it. It removes this hardship by providing a deep link to the content directly in the notification bar. Saving you from the heavy lifting. Everyone is happy, Technology is awesome & there is an after the rain smell the air. Right? Not so fast.

There is more to Google Now than a smooth UX. That is just a starting point, what’s actually happening is that Google is looking at our usage of its services like search, email, maps, calendar, YouTube, Play Store etc. Predict what we are going to do next and present us with a quick and easy way to do that using Google services.The bit about “Google services” is the point where things start getting interesting.

In case you haven’t noticed, Most of the time (not always) Google Now links to a service owned by Google. It is predicting what you going to search next and help you with it via Google search. It’s fetching your Meeting info via Google Calendar, It’s helping you navigate your way to the meeting venue via Google Maps, and it’s helping you watch the video you searched for on YouTube. So on and so forth. Not a bad tradeoff as we would have used these services anyways. In each one of these cases Google’s offerings are market leader.

The next logical question to ask is: What will happen when Google Now choose to serve a use case where Google doesn’t have a dog in the fight or where Google’s offering is not considered as the Top Dog? Where best for Google is not necessarily the best for user. Will there be same level of access given to the competing services. These are not some exotic use cases I am talking about. I am talking about the services we all use everyday. Google Keep Vs. Evernote, Google+ Vs. Facebook, Google Play Music Vs. Spotify, Google Drive Vs. Dropbox, Amazon/Flipkart/Alibaba Vs. Google Shopping express, Alipay /PayTM Vs. Google Wallet. List is long.

Google Now is that secret weapon by which Google is nudging and steering users toward its own properties. I am not sure if its anti competitive or not but in some cases it surely seems to be limiting choices (for the time being at least). On a theoretical level I always understood and appreciated the brilliance of Google now. But as an end user I faced its downside when I returned from the Bay area few months back.

I am a heavy user of music discovery app Shazam. In bay area, whenever I heard a new song I used to say “ OK Google! Which song is this? “ on Google voice search and it used to sample ambient music, identify the song and present to me the link to same on Play Music. I bought few tracks that way but more importantly I stopped using Shazam and I stopped without making a conscious decision to stop. When I came back to India the same service of song recognition and purchase via Now was not supported here and it was not possible for me to configure Shazam for the same. Shazam was locked out. The day this service will be supported in India I am sure a lot of user will default to Play Music.

This is where the level playing field ends in android and a slippery slope starts.

Kirt McMASTER, Co Founder & CEO of Cyanogen was not exaggerating when he saidAndroid and iOS are nothing but a shell for Google and Apple services”. Much as we think of Android and Apple as antithesis of each other, they are same in one respect. Every third party developer operates as an app on top of their stack, with access to a set of API, which is far less powerful than what is exposed to Apple and Google product. Third party app developer need to work within the parameters set by them. They can’t color outside the line. It limits their capability to innovate as a consequence limiting the choice for end user.

The Bigger Shift

Anticipatory technologies are next big thing. These technologies are harbinger of what we at Signals refer to as “cognitive layer”. A new and invisible layer of services between applications and user interface which observes user behavior, predicts next thing user might want to do, consider and evaluate candidate services to full fill them and present its pick to user ahead of time. Our vision with Shifu is to contribute to cognitive layer with our set of offering around core phone services like call management, Phonebook, Battery, To Do etc.

For best user experience ,cognitive layer has to be impartial toward candidate services .One way to ensure this is by decoupling cognitive layer from candidate services. Hard to do if your own serivces are competing for user attention. As more and more of internet usage shifts to the mobile devices it will be critical for developers to be on the right side of this cognitive layer filtering.

So far only Google services can permeate this layer. That’s the reason why everyone from Facebook to Amazon to Alibaba are investing in building their own phone. To ensure their services are not left out. Google Now is an asymmetric advantage enjoyed by Google products and this asymmetry is not necessarily because of an inherently superior product. It’s a new “default” only this time it is very subtle.

To be fair to Google ,this might just be a timing issue. They might be waiting for product to be mature before opening it to third party developers. They are doing some controlled experiment. At the same time Upstarts like Cyanogen, One Plus and Xiaomi seem to be making aggressive moves in this direction. There is some confusion and uncertainty but that’s usually a good thing because that means there is an opportunity. Next couple of years will be interesting for our industry and beneficial for the end user. Fasten up the seat belt and grab the popcorn. Exciting times ahead.