Friends, rabbits, internet-persons, lend me your ears (bunny-shaped or otherwise). Today, we need to take a titillating trip back in time — ’cause a pivotal part of our Android-flavored past is about to poke its way into the present.
So rewind with me for a sec, won’t ya? The year was 2012 — the same exact numbers as our current moment on this earth, only with a flickety-flick of those final two digits. The Android version of the era was Android 4.1, better known as sweet, juicy Jelly Bean. Google’s Pixel phones didn’t yet exist; rather, the Samsung-made Galaxy Nexus served as the flagship of the platform that summer, while the LG-birthed Nexus 4 was on its way out of the virtual womb and into the world.
And at that precise moment in time, lemme tell ya: We were getting a glimpse of the future.
That future was a groundbreaking Google service called Google Now. Remember it? Google Now launched as part of Android 4.1 and showed us just how good Google’s existing intelligence could be when it was woven together in clever new ways and transformed into a whole new whole.
Google Now was Google’s golden ticket — its key to a future no other company could unlock. The service combined bits of innocuous-seeming info only Google could know to create a predictive personal portfolio, which then conjured up what you wanted before you even asked for it and served it to you automatically at exactly the right time.
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It. Was. Incredible. And then, in typical Google fashion: It. Was. Abandoned.
Well, my Google-gawking gaggle, have I got good news for you. Google Now is on the brink of an explosive comeback — but this time, it isn’t being called Google Now. It isn’t being made available across all of Android, either — only for us Pixel-carryin’ folk, at least as of this moment. And in typical fashion, Google doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything to promote it or make average phone-owning schmoes aware of its existence.
Blink, in fact, and you might miss it entirely — or fail to recognize its familiarity and the step-saving brilliance it can bring into your life. Believe you me, though: You wouldn’t want to do that.
Google Now 2.0: From Jelly Bean to Pixel
Before we can get to the present, we have to catch up on the past.
Google Now, in case you weren’t around in those days or maybe just ingested a few too many memory-blurring substances in the years since, was a panel that’d pop up as part of the main Android home screen. At one point, there was even a standalone Google Now Launcher that anyone could install to bring the fully Googlefied home screen setup onto any Android phone, no matter who made it. (Google, naturally, killed that off eventually, too.)
So what sort of stuff would Google Now give you in that pre-Pixel period? Well, let’s see:
- If you searched for a flight on your computer, it’d have a card waiting for you on your phone with the latest status of that flight and a one-tap option to navigate to the appropriate airport when the time arrived. As the flight’s status evolved, Google Now would continue to keep you updated.
- If you searched for a business on any device where you were signed in, Google Now would pull up a card on your phone with a map to that business, an estimate of how long it’d take you to get there, and a one-tap option to navigate any ol’ way your heart desired.
- The service would monitor your Google Calendar for you and let you know when you needed to leave for an upcoming appointment in order to make it on time, based on both your current location and the latest traffic conditions.
- It’d automatically pop up traffic and total travel time info whenever you were likely to be headed to work, too, or any other frequently visited destination (the sandwich shop, your local platypus polishing professional, etc).
And all of that was just the start. Google Now would recommend restaurants or bars when you were in new areas, offer to translate text or convert currency when you were in foreign cities, and provide all sorts of other proactive pieces of info exactly when you needed ’em — before you ever had to ask.
That’s why Google Now was heralded at the time as “the predictive future of search.” It brought the countless tidbits Google knows about our lives and our world together in a fantastically useful new way — a way, again, that no company other than Google could truly manage.
And then, Google did its Google thing and gave up on the concept before it had the chance to fully develop. The company saw another squirrel, basically — the traffic-driving news feeds its more socially minded competitors were creating — and scurried off to chase that, abandoning all of Now’s originality and intelligence and morphing it into Yet Another Indistinguishable Stream™ of scrolling stories.
As a dashing and unusually observant writer observed at the peak of Now’s deconstruction, Google’s once-groundbreaking home for predictive intelligence had devolved into “a clumsily constructed shell of its former self”:
Five years ago, Google Now felt like the future. Today, the Google feed feels like the past — like a mildly different spin on a ubiquitous concept and a step backwards from what Google achieved when it put the full power of its resources front and center. It comes across as more desperate than daring. And for those of us on Android in particular, where predictive intelligence was once an exciting marquee element of the operating system, that’s a damn shame to see.
Sniff. All right — now that we’ve all shed a tear or two over the past, let’s transport ourselves back to the present and think ahead to Google Now’s Pixel-centric reinvention and the context-enriched future it’s once again promising.
The Google Now Pixel rebirth
Pixels are first and foremost Google phones. That much is obvious, right? And since shortly after their arrival in 2016, Google’s self-made Pixels have featured an especially Googley widget on their home screens called At a Glance. The widget can surface an assortment of useful info all throughout your day, including everything from the weather to calendar reminders, traffic and commute alerts, and even travel-related alerts pulled programmatically from itineraries in your Gmail-stored emails.
Now, a new analysis of under-development Google software makes it look like that very piece of the Pixel experience is poised to get a meaty upgrade that’ll make it almost eerily familiar for anyone who’s been paying attention.
Specifically, the shrewd crew from 9to5Google discovered some code that suggests Google will soon connect the Pixel’s At a Glance element to Assistant and reframe its purpose thusly:
Your Assistant shows you what you need, right when you need it, on your home screen and lock screen.
Ringing a bell yet? Just wait.
In addition to its current capabilities, the Pixel’s At a Glance area will soon gain the following features, according to the info unearthed by our friendly neighborhood code spelunkers:
- At a store: Shopping lists and Google Pay rewards cards when you’re in supported stores
- Bedtime: Your upcoming bedtime from the Clock app
- Connected devices: Connection status and battery info for your Bluetooth devices
- Doorbell: Show who’s at the door when your doorbell rings
- Fitness: Activity info from your fitness app
- Flashlight: Reminder when flashlight is on
- Safety check: Safety check countdown from the Personal Safety app
- Timer & stopwatch: Timer and stopwatch info from the Clock app
Combine that with the Pixel-based At a Glance features shown off at Google’s I/O conference earlier this year — including expanded travel plan info, contextual auto-summoning of scannable boarding passes, and a newly scrollable interface that lets you swipe through the various updates — and what do we have, my Android-adoring amigo?
Yep, you’d better believe it: It’s Google Now.
The feature’s been updated to include some more contemporary elements like all the connected-tech stuff, and it’s in a slightly different shell that fits in more naturally with Google’s current Pixel interface — but beneath the surface, by golly, it’s the same bones, the same concept, the same gentle mixing of proactive, contextual info from lots of different Google-associated sources.
And just like with Google Now, blending all those ingredients together has the potential to create a wildly impressive new whole — one that’ll show off the power of predictive technology and make our lives a whole lot easier.
Now, let’s not beat around the bush: It is absolutely hilarious that Google’s pulling yet another 360-degree flip-flop and coming back to the concept it sold us on and then abandoned years earlier. On the other hand, we’re the ones who’ll benefit in the end — so, heck, we’ll take it.
The real question now is if this go-round will be followed by another platform-wide expansion effort, à la the Google Now Launcher, or if it’ll remain a Pixel exclusive perk and be available only to those of us who carry Google’s self-made Android devices.
In 2012, platform-wide availability across the entire Android ecosystem seemed like the obvious way for Google to go. In 2021, it’s tough not to wonder if Google Now’s latest incarnation will ultimately become another point on the Pixel’s list of “helpful and intelligent” points of differentiation.
In many ways, we’ve sure come full circle with this whole contextual intelligence theme. But while the technology at the center of this story is almost shockingly familiar to the stuff we saw back in the Android 4 era, everything on the outside is about as different as can be — and so, too, it would seem, is Google’s motivation for making all of this happen.
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