Google Now 'talks' its way onto iOS

The mashup of personal assistant and predictive search known as Google Now gets approved for iOS. But will it take attention away from Siri?

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
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For Google, the future is "Now"
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Google's predictive search and voice recognition tool sauntered over to Apple's iOS as an app on Monday.

Having debuted at last year's Google I/O conference, the Now-enabled Google Search 3.0 for iOS brings the same robust search features and visual style, called cards, to iPhones and iPads. Tamar Yehoshua, Google Search's director of product management, said that Google Now will compete well against Apple's personal assistant Siri because of its accuracy.

"We think we've built a great experience," she said during a conversation at Google's headquarters in Mountain View last week. "We're giving you an answer before you've even asked," she explained. Google is "able to predict knowledge that you want before you know you want it."

Google Now does that by taking advantage of several different technological areas. It leverages, according to Yehoshua, the text-to-speech output, the Knowledge Graph, and the technology stack to provide its voice recognition and predictive search combo.

Unlike Google Now on Android, which you can start using as long as your device is running Android 4.1 or later, the Google Now app on iOS will require you to log in to your Google account first. But the defining features of Google Now, the voice recognition and the predictive search, remain intact.

The predictive search in Google Now will use your calendar, for example, to determine what information it should show you. That info can change depending on where you're going, so it might show you traffic on your route home, or tourist sites near your hotel.

Google Now's Voice Recognition has made some significant improvements, Yehoshua said, since it debuted last spring. "We've seen a 15 to 35 percent improvement since Jelly Bean [Android 4.1]," said Vincent Vanhoucke, Android Uber Tech Lead.

Search, she said, is continually growing. "People got used to using keywords to search because they had to, but it's not the best way to search. We have implemented just the beginning phases of context and conversation," she said, such as following a question like "How tall is Barack Obama?" with "And how tall is his wife?"

Google Now arrives today as an app on Apple's iPhone and iPad. Google

And an even more complex scenario she posited as a future goal for Google Now would be to follow "What happened in the Giants game?" with "Who's pitching? When are the playing tomorrow?" and the tricky integration of other digital services that could conclude with "Record the game for me."

Yehoshua declined to comment when asked about Google's plans to port Google Now to other platforms, such as Chrome. But it's becoming apparent that the service is big deal for Google, as evidenced by the attention that co-founder and CEO Larry Page paid Google Now during last week's quarterly earnings call.

The goal of Google Now, he said, "is to get you the right information, at just the right time." He noted the key features of the service, including that it provides people with their boarding passes and delivery updates as well as traffic conditions, local sports scores, and upcoming weather conditions without prompting.

"Looking for the nearest pharmacy? Just ask Google for directions, and we'll deliver them instantly," Page said. "No typing needed. And you can now ask conversational questions like 'Do I need a jacket this weekend?'"

While it's clear that Google Now is growing in its important to Google, especially as a strong customer-facing tool for its Knowledge Graph, it's less obvious how many people with iPhones will abandon Siri and its automatic start features in order to jump into Google's competing app.

Corrections, April 29 at 5:25 p.m. PT: This story originally misidentified Tamar Yehoshua. She is the director of product management for Google Search. The quote about improvements in Google Now's Voice Recognition was misattributed. The correct speaker is Vincent Vanhoucke.