For those who have not heard, Google has updated their Google search app for iOS with one of the most sought after features of Mountain View's highest end Android phones, Google Now. Yep, you can update or get your Apple loving hands on it, right now, in the App Store.
If you are not familiar with Google Now, it is the next step of mobile and information: learning what you do and like by a combination of your searches, your Gmail account, and your location. For instance, you show up for 8-10 hours a day in one location, typically during the day. Google Now asks if that's where you work, then proactively pops up traffic info for you for your commute home, roughly around the time you usually head out. Neat, right? I'm a big proponent of the fact that our smartphones are actually still a little dumb: they wait for us to ask for help, instead of learning. With Google Now, you take some good steps there.
Unfortunately, the iOS experience leaves me a bit bemused, specifically in how to set up Google Now to learn all of this wonderful information. Signing in to your Gmail account is straightforward, and getting to Google Now settings is easy, as you see here.
From there, things get interesting. Lets start with the Next Appointment function. In theory, it reads your Google Calendar and should show your next appointment. In practice, it doesn't seem to, or only shows appointments within a certain window, but the window is undefined, and cryptically hidden. In fact, that's a theme of Google Now: a combination of explicit data selection (which makes sense) and mysteriously missing options (which baffle, as they do not indicate how that information will be found). And then there's the confusing user interface. Have a look at the Next Appointment settings. Notice the slightly dimmer last two options? They are set to "On," but yet they can't be switched off. Why? That's just sloppy.
Let's have a look at Movies. As you can see, you can let Google pop a "card" (the term for the proactive notification displays) for your favorite movies. Great! How do you specify those movies? From your search history? Psychic Friends Network? Or are you required to make Google+ your social network of choice and +1 every movie? This is bizarre, as is the corresponding "when near theater." What theater? Every theater? Strange, if so, but potentially useful...if that's explained.
How about News Updates? I'm kind of a news junkie. I rely on the Breaking News app to push hot headlines in real time to my phone; works great. In Google Now, you can set your "sensitivity;" what does this mean? If I set it to High, does that mean I want more news, or that Google Now should exert a higher level of sensitivity when presenting to me? Or should it only show me news that it wants to protect me from upsetting information? Like many of these functions, I can imagine there's a manual or FAQ somewhere (I hope?), but why is it not part of the app? Frustrating design, reminiscent of ancient enterprise applications.
Finally, we have Birthdays. Google Calendar does a good job of reading the birthdays associated with a contact in Gmail, and automatically creating calendar entries for each. See how it appears on my iOS Calendar? So why do the same birthdays not appear in Google Now? Where are they drawn from? How do I populate them, if the Goog doesn't seem to understand?
Google Now has great promise, and, while I am delighted to have the ability on Apple's latest shiny toy, it seems we're in a very early stage. Perhaps a bit more polish is still required.