One of the most interesting features in Google's Android 4.1 Jelly Bean release is one you might not even notice right away. It's called Google Now, and it's poised to show off the power of what a Google-made platform can do.
Google Now uses a combination of search data from your Google account and location data from your Android device to compile info you need, when you need it. It shows up sporadically during the day to pass along a nugget of news or shot of information that's relevant to your life in that very moment.
Sound futuristic? It is. And it's pretty damn impressive.
Google Now: An exciting addition
When I first reviewed Jelly Bean, I avoided going into too much detail about Google Now; since the service is based on ongoing usage and patterns, I wanted to give it a fair amount of time to integrate with my life before passing any judgment.
Having now used Android 4.1 for a full month, I feel confident in saying Google Now is one of Jelly Bean's most exciting additions. And what we're seeing today is only the tip of the iceberg.
Here's how it works: Once activated, Google Now becomes a core part of your phone's search and notification systems. (And yes, I did say "once activated": Google Now is an opt-in service, so if you don't turn it on, it won't do a thing. Privacy concerns, addressed!) You can get to Google Now by tapping the search bar on the Android 4.1 home screen or by swiping upward on the home button from anywhere on your device; you can also jump to it right from your lock screen by swiping upward on the lock icon. And when a particularly relevant Google Now item comes along, it automatically appears in your notifications area in order to catch your eye.
When you open Google Now, you see a series of info cards. These info cards change based on where you are, what you're doing, and what's going on around you. And that's where the power of Google Now really comes into play.
Some of the Google Now stuff is pretty basic: By default, it always has a card showing you the weather forecast for your area. Handy, sure, but nothing that's gonna blow you away.
Don't be misled, though: Google Now has plenty of tricks up its sleeves. If you search for flight info on your computer, for example, Google Now will have a card waiting for you on your phone or tablet with the latest status of that flight and a one-tap option to navigate to the appropriate airport. As the flight's status evolves, Google Now will continue to keep you updated.
If you search for a business on your computer, Google Now will have a card waiting on your mobile device with a map to that business, an estimate of how long it'll take you to get there -- from your current location, including any traffic delays -- and a one-tap option to navigate by car, foot, or public transportation.
Not too shabby.
Google Now: Beyond the basics
So what else does Google Now do to make your life easier? Some highlights:
• It monitors your Google Calendar for you and lets you know when you need to leave for an upcoming appointment in order to make it on time, based on both your location and the current traffic conditions. It also offers to navigate you to the appointment's location. This feature is every bit as slick as it sounds; for me, it may be one of Google Now's most useful components.
• It automatically pops up traffic and total travel time info whenever you're likely to be headed to work or another regular destination. It uses location history to figure that stuff out, which caused an amusing little hiccup for me: Since I tend to work from home, Google Now assumed that my gym -- where I drive midafternoon on many days -- was my place of business. As such, it started giving me "time to work" travel info prior to my typical workout times, with the gym being my "work" location. I was able to fix that easily enough by following Google Now's instructions and editing my location settings in the Google Maps dashboard. (As a side perk, I figure I've now earned the right to order a cheesy t-shirt that says "The gym is my place of business." Watch out, ladies.)
• It gives you up-to-the-minute info on public transportation anytime you approach a bus stop or train station, telling you what buses or trains are on the way and how long it is until they leave.
• It watches your favorite sports teams -- based on your Web searches -- and pops in a card with live score info anytime they're playing. I'm not a huge sports fanatic myself, but I've done test searches for various teams and have later seen them show up as promised in my Google Now watch-list. If only it could do the same thing for tech event play-by-plays, I'd be golden.
Google Now has a few other functions, too, like recommending restaurants or bars when you're in new areas and offering to translate text or convert currency when you're traveling in foreign cities. And, as I alluded to earlier, Google says even more options are in the works.
Already, some auxiliary functions are falling into place. Smart cards aside, anything you search for on a computer will actually show up alongside Google Now in the Android 4.1 search tool; that part of the Jelly Bean platform always displays your three most recent Internet searches from any device and gives you the option to view more. And don't forget that Google rolled out native cross-device tab and bookmark syncing with Chrome for Android earlier this year as well.
All combined, we're finally reaching the point where technology is becoming about the user -- not the device. Your searches, schedules, and needs follow you seamlessly from PC to phone to tablet, and you don't have to think about any of it. That kind of streamlined simplicity never gets old: Even after a month, every time I walk out to my car and see Google Now info waiting on my phone -- info that came up on its own based on my habits or something I did at my desk -- I can't help but smile.
Google Now is a natural progression in putting our devices one step ahead of us and making them feel like extensions of ourselves instead of just isolated islands. And that, my friends, is what the future's all about.