The merging of information with context is extremely powerful and portends the next wave of personal productivity for many of us. Google introduced actionable notifications to Android with Jelly Bean, allowing users to quickly take steps based on the type of notification coming in. It’s a cool way to have information presented to you in a way that makes sense and doesn’t require much effort to interact with. It was also something that iOS sorely lacked for a long time, and that still isn’t implemented as well as it could be (pretty much only works with a few built-in apps).
But Google is continuing to move quickly down this path. Whereas Apple usually takes an established idea and refines it until its value is perfectly clear and well-executed (mostly), Google is forging ahead with vigor. Google Now was the next step, bridging your device’s knowledge about your location in reality with the information contained in your Google account and its apps. Calendar events, flight information, travel, traffic, and a host of other useful items get surfaced to you when it makes sense. Leaving work? Here’s how long it’ll probably take to get home. Google achieves this by leveraging everything it can learn about you and your patterns to provide a far more compelling experience informationally and contextually than Siri can. Siri has personality, but Google Now feels like it’s thinking ahead for you, the way someone hired to assist you would.
Now it appears that context and intent will be utilized in new ways in Android 4.4 KitKat. Reading this Ars Technica article made me stop and actually think about where this is headed. The gist of it is that the main Android home screen launcher experience has been embedded into the Google Search app structure, which converts actions previously taken in the launcher to jump to other apps/experiences into collectible, applicable data points. This allows Android to present other content, make intelligent links to apps on your phone based on searches you perform, and infer even more about usage patterns and the way you use your information. A smart phone that actually feels smart, working for you, when you want it to, giving you not just more information, but the right information.
Herein lies the issue for me. My whole life I’ve been waiting for technology to catch up with my fantasies. And we’re standing on the precipice of that very convergence, and I don’t know how to feel about it. I know why I’m conflicted though, and it comes down to a sense of lost faith in the only company that’s poised to actually make these kinds of things happen – to bring the future that much closer to now.
In the early to mid 2000s, I was positively smitten with Google. It was a company that strove to enrich the way technology touched our lives. A bunch of engineers and web nerds, assembled together to make great things with a touch of geeky personality. Google Labs was a hotbed of interesting stuff. Working at Google seemed like it would just about be the greatest thing ever. It was always an advertising company, and we knew that, but the actions taken and the message regarding the position of the company at that time felt genuine: “Don’t be evil”.
In the intervening years between then and now, that phrase barely belongs on a bumper sticker, let alone echoed as the charter of a behemoth whose once clear path has become clouded. We’ve seen it happen as the Google grew and changed. There have been patent battles, privacy missteps, an alliance to unite wireless in the name of consumers, and the failure to make it so, since a deal with Verizon seemed like a better idea at the time. There’s been the trumpeting of open source values, and over time it’s been watered down to a catch phrase more rooted in zealotry than truth. The promise of the open and free internet, once a guiding principle for the company, has been abandoned since they’re now a provider of those same services. And those are the serious issues; Google can’t even keep simple promises anymore.
And yet in spite of all this, they are the most interesting technology company in the world right now. Android is an amazing mobile operating system, well past its ugly teenage years and has matured into something compelling and full of potential. Google’s web services are simply beyond anything else offered at the consumer level. Despite my personal feelings on the invasive nature of Google+, there’s a unity to the company’s brand offerings that didn’t exist before, and that’s appealing too. The other futurist initiatives underway speak to the heart of the innovation exploding at the company. Sometimes it really feels like the old Google is still in there somewhere. And there are individuals who I believe still are fighting for that, and embody those ideals, and for them I’m grateful.
But I can’t trust that it is. Google stood for something and it turned its back on its core values to become a different kind of company. It’ll say that it’s never going to do anything nefarious with my information, and I’ll have full control over it, but Google has flipped its position on the exact kinds of things I care about in the past – what would make this any different? Information is the new currency, and Google is a drunken monarch with an oral tradition of good intentions and a written history of falling short on its promises. You’re beholden to your shareholders once you go public, and the world is full of examples of corporations changing over time for exactly those reasons. But if you’re going to serve that master, you don’t get to play the role of high-minded philosopher too. The bottom line is that Google wants to be good, but it can’t help but be evil in the process. And that dichotomy doesn’t leave me with much confidence in its vision of our future.