Google Tip-Toes Toward The Robot Valet

by , Jun 29, 2012, 9:47 AM
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Although its own culture precludes Google from every effecting the slick coolness of Apple, the presentations yesterday at its I/O conference suggested that it is starting to understand the power of techno-dazzle. While everyone seems to be talking about the overpriced Google-ized headset or the lowball pricing of the Nexus 7 tablet, it seems to me the Google Now rollout is the most intriguing of all. The company is trying to push search to the next model where it is more anticipatory than reactive.

Over the past few years I have sometimes used the term digital valet to describe where behavioral tracking ultimately has to head if it aims to show its value to users. While still rudimentary, Google Now offers a glimpse.

Too much of the early coverage glommed onto the voice search piece, trying to gin up a Google battle with Apple Siri. Actually, Google mobile apps have had voice search for a very long time, and their results are as localized as you will get on an iOS search. What is more intriguing is the way this model pushes information to you the system deems most relevant either by virtue of your location or, conceivably, from evidence of previous searches. I haven't gotten my hands yet on a device with the Android Jelly Bean OS with the feature, so I am beholden to the demos and hands-on reports.    The Google Now page is live now with more information.

As Google pitches this, the interface employs a series of “cards” that appear on your device screen throughout your day anticipating the situations you will be in and the information you will need. It is tied to your calendar and email and your sports tastes, among other points of personal data. You opt in to whether the system uses your personal data to determine results. For now the prefab cards are for the basics of search, traffic, appointments, upcoming flights, weather, scores and contextual information suggesting nearby restaurants.

The initial model is both understandably limited but also cagey. This is personal assistant lite. Google is only hinting at the ways in which it can knit together the pieces of personal information it already knows about you into a series of shortcut maneuvers. The basic set of cards just push forward the types of information and the level of personalization we've already come to expect. Nothing particularly creepy here.

In fact at the Google Now site, the cards are described with indications of what data points need to be turned on for it to work. The traffic card and its suggested routes need to tap into location, location history and Web history to determine what your route to work is and what the alternate routes might be. If you let it manage appointment alerts and tie them to location, the device will tell you how to get there.

What is most intriguing here is how they take it to the next level. When it uses geo-location to understand what your everyday patterns are, when will it show you the coffee deals along the way in advance?

There is something of a milestone here in that with Google Now we will get a better sense whether and how much of a digital valet people really want. The Achilles heel of personalization was always input. Almost all personalization schemes required some effort telling the system about yourself. For years most execs at sites with personalization features told me that less than 10% of even the most loyal visitors ever bothered with them. But all of us have been inputting personal preferences to Google unwittingly for years. If anything, the company needs to restrain itself in an initial valet like this so as not to reveal too much about what it knows about us.

But it is a beginning. Despite the risk of triggering concerns about privacy and surveillance, companies have to take that first step to show users how the data can work for them. Whether Google Now achieves this is unclear. But when it comes to the public evolution of data, this is one worth tracking.  

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