We sometimes forget that smartphones are a relatively new technology. People take their Blackberrys, iPhones and Android gadgets for granted, but this category of device has really only been with us since 2007. So we ain’t seen nothing yet. Smartphones changed the way we communicate, revolutionised social networking and had a big impact on other categories of devices such as wristwatches and pocket cameras. The next big trend hitting consumer technology is context – using what is known about you to present you with the right information at the right time and all that. Not surprisingly, Google is taking an early lead in this game.
Last month the technology giant unveiled a new feature for Android phones called Google Now as part of the Jelly Bean version of the operating system. Google Now learns about your daily habits, knows where you live and work, reads your diary and uses what it knows about weather, traffic conditions and other circumstances to guide you through your day.
I’ve been using Google Now for a few weeks and while it still has a long way to go in terms of changing my life and making me more efficient, it has become a very handy companion.
The Google Now interface uses a system of “cards” that pop up when the software thinks you’ll need them. So in the morning it might present you with a card for the weather, followed by the traffic conditions along your usual route to work. If you have a meeting in your diary with venue information, Google Now will predict what time you should leave in order to make it on time and prompt you with a card.
On my first day with Google Now, I opened up the service around lunch time and it presented me with cards for nearby restaurants. If you search for a flight number in Google Now, it will create a card for that flight and pop that information up around the time of the flight.
It’s an exciting service that’s currently in its infancy and has massive potential. One of the challenges will be deciding how to make it available to other applications and services so that they can add predictions and information to the feed, which seems like a logical inclusion in the future.
It’s also far from perfect. While Google Maps has relatively good live traffic information for South Africa, it has done a dismal job of predicting how long the commute from my office to my home in Cape Town would take. On one occasion Google Now predicted a 26 minute drive that took almost an hour. Not ideal.
You can forgive these shortcomings, however, with an understanding of how difficult it is to get this kind of thing 100% right. Google’s intention is awesome and I look forward to my Galaxy Nexus getting better and better at bossing me around all day. Non-Nexus customers will have to wait for manufacturers to roll out Jelly Bean updates before they can try it out, unfortunately.
Value: A free service that optimises contextual information for you.
Alternatives: Cue for iPhone (www.cueup.com)