While Siri Wise-Cracks, Google Defines Smart Local Search
By Todd Hixon
Field Trip App Icon; image via TechCrunch
When Android 4.1 (aka “Jelly Bean”) arrived on my phone last spring*, I concluded that Android had finally produced an OS that is serious competition for Apple’s iOS (more). The Google Now feature, which is built into Jelly Bean, impressed me deeply. Now makes use of the data that Google and your phone can gather about your daily life and uses it to serve up useful information, spontaneously, in a stream of cards that is accessed by tapping the search field, or swiping the open button up. For example, Now learns where you usually spend weekdays and evenings and concludes those locations are “work” and “home”. Then it serves up cards with drive times, traffic alerts, and alternate routes at your normal commuting times. It does similar things with morning weather, favorite restaurants, sports teams, etc. (more).
Last September, Google added Field Trip, which is an Android App that tees up offers from businesses nearby that are deemed cool or interesting. Field Trip runs in the background. It uses data from Zagat (owned by Google) plus a variety of third party sources (Cool Hunting, Scoutmob, Thrillist, Food Network, Eater). Field Trip takes advantage of the rich functionality of Android’s notification bar (another area where Android leads iOS) to pop up information in a manner that is noticeable but minimally intrusive. There is extensive opt-in/tuning here: you have to download the app, you can set levels for frequency of suggestions, and you can exclude data sources.
I’ve let Field Trip run for a week, and the results are indeed interesting and not annoying (and I know how to be annoyed). It has popped up some restaurants in my work neighborhood that I like, and few that I thought were irrelevant. So I will keep an eye on this stream, and probably before long I will try a new restaurant, at which point (presumably) Google and its partners have the potential to make money. The idea of using the cell phone to make-in-the-moment offers is finally getting mainstream.
Some find the idea of personalized, real-time, push information to be disturbing. Techcrunch said: “Now … has the potential to become Google’s creepiest service yet” (source). I don’t let this bother me. Two realities of the web are less privacy and “if you don’t know how you’re paying for the service, then you are the product.” These are mutually beneficial relationships as long as they are not abused, like much else in life.
The idea of “bubbled search” (where the results you see are a function of what the search engine knows about you) has been strongly criticized on the web (e.g.). On the web I generally agree with this: if I am looking for information, I want to apply my own filters, not have a search engine do that invisibly for commercial purposes. There are “no-bubble” search engine alternatives on the web, a good example is duckduckgo.
I think this is different on the mobile device. Mobile searches are very pragmatic: “where is the nearest Staples?” Fast results with minimum typing are valuable. And knowing what is nearby often matters. So pushed, bubbled search like Now and Field Trip become valuable.
Apple focused on a fun and clever user interface with Siri. And voice input, if it works really well, adds value on a mobile device. But the fun wears down (I already know how Siri answers when I ask her to “open the pod bay doors”). And I don’t see Siri getting used or talked about much any more.
Google has chosen a different paradigm: a proactive, customized stream of search results. It seems to work very well. I predict that both users and Apple will soon be paying strong attention.
*a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which actually receives Android upgrades, when Verizon gets around to it.
This post first appeared at blogs.forbes.com/toddhixon on January 16, 2013.