This year, Google did something even better. It gave you a new phone. And a new tablet. And a new computer. Or, more to the point, it fundamentally transformed the two most important uses for mobile devices.
What are we doing with our phones, tablets and laptops? The most basic uses are "getting information" and "communicating with people."
Google this week unleashed a blizzard of updates and improvements that fundamentally change -- and radically improve -- how we can do both of these things.
On the "getting information" front, Google made two big additions to its Google Now service: iOS support and new capabilities.
Google Now is Google's artificial intelligent, proactive, voice-command search tool, which can pop up reminders and disparate information with uncanny relevance. When a supporting Android phone is "awake" and Google Now is selected, you can use the command "Google" to wake it, then you say your command, just like Captain Kirk would say "computer" on Star Trek.
The first big addition that Google Now added this week was an iOS version. It was built into the regular Google app. By updating the app, launching it on an iPhone or iPad and pressing the microphone icon, you can ask for things in natural language. (Sadly, the iOS version can't wake up in response to a user saying "Google.")
Ironically, because Google Now is supported only on the most advanced Android phones, the number of people who can use Google Now on iPhones is far greater than the number of people who can use it on Android devices. Now that Google has added iOS support, the number of people who can use Google Now on mobile devices has more than tripled, according to one estimate. As a bonus, iPhone users can use both Google Now and Siri, switching between them. Android users can't use Siri.
Google Now and Siri can do many of the same things, and each has abilities the other doesn't have.
What's truly different about Google Now is that it can be proactive, showing you "cards" (nuggets of information) you didn't ask for and alerting you on its own initiative to things like the changes in the weather, people's birthdays, reminders from your calendar, directions to places it knows you go, and places to go nearby.
Even before this week, Google Now users could use the voice command to search the Web; send email, texts and Google+ posts; make calls; get the time and weather; check the calendar; get Maps directions and find nearby restaurants; do math; and set reminders, timers and alarms.
All of this is streamlined by the fact that Google knows you well. For example, the first time I said: "Google, call Kenny" it knew I was talking about my son, it knew his phone number and just placed the call for me. There was no voice training, no relationship-setting -- nothing. When you ask for weather or directions, it tells you based on your current location.
One of my favorite features is that you can say "Google, play 'Sweet Home Alabama'" and Google Now will simply play the song from YouTube. It's very hard to find a song that isn't on iTunes, so it will play just about any song -- or any video.
Another cool thing is that you can say "Note to self" and whatever you say after that will be sent to you (you can set it to send self-notes to Evernote, Keep or email).
In addition to these existing abilities, Google this week announced several new ones.
The best is geo-fenced, or location-based reminders. You can say, "buy milk, bread and apples next time I'm at Whole Foods," or "Try Billy's Bakery next time I'm in New York" and Now will hang on to the reminder until you go there.
Google also added new abilities to interact with public transportation and entertainment information. For example, if you buy movie tickets through Fandango, Google will find the confirmation in your Gmail in-box, then tell you (without prompting) via Google Now when you need to leave for the theater based on current traffic conditions.
You can phrase a public-transportation query vaguely, and Google Now should know what you're talking about. For example, you can say: "When does my flight leave?" and Now will tell you the time (based on the confirmation in your in-box). If your flight is canceled, Google Now will alert you.
For the month of May, I've been on a "Google Now diet" in which I use the service exclusively when I do a long list of tasks (basically all the things Now is supposed to be capable of). Google Now has completely changed my relationship with my phone. I'm talking to it constantly and hardly typing anything.
Google Now feels like a constant presence in my life: It's like I'm being followed around by an ever-present entourage that includes a librarian, a personal assistant, a concierge and a tour guide.
Unlike Siri, Google feels "ambient," for lack of a better term. It's watching my changing environment, circumstances and situation even when I'm not actively using it. It changes what my phone is and how it feels to use it.
This sense of omnipresence will be expanded when Now becomes available on desktop and laptop computers -- Google also announced this week a Chrome browser version of Google Now.
The command for waking up Now on Chrome is "OK, Google" so your phone and your Google Glass device don't think you're talking to them. (The Glass command is "OK, Glass.")
Communicating with people
Google has long offered many ways to communicate: Email, chat, IM, phone calls and multi-user video chat under overlapping brands like Gmail, Talk, Messenger, Voice and Hangouts -- a group video chat service on Google+.
Google announced a new service this week that's also called Hangouts, the new uber brand for Google-hosted communication.
Hangouts is an alternative to Apple's iMessage, Microsoft's Skype and Facebook's Messenger. But it's also fundamentally different in subtle ways that may change how you think about online communication.
The theme of Hangouts is unification, which happens on two levels.
The first is that Hangouts unifies several of Google's old apps into a single app. Specifically, it unifies Talk, Messenger and Hangouts into a single product, with some integration with the original Hangouts, Gmail and Google+.
Second, and more profoundly, it unifies instances of Hangouts across all your devices. Any change you make on one device is reflected instantly across all the others. (You can find Hangouts as a Chrome extension, as the messaging feature of both Google+ and Gmail and in the form of stand-alone iOS and Android apps.)
So let's say you're chatting with a couple of friends on Google+, and you have to run to the bank. While standing in line, you just fire up the app on your smartphone and you see the whole conversation -- not only what was said while you were at your computer, but also what was said while you were driving to the bank.
The log-in is associated with you, not your devices. When you communicate with someone, you're communicating with them, not their devices. And you can take conversations from chat to picture-sharing to phone calls to group video chats and back to chat, and from phone to tablet to laptop to desktop.
The conversations go anywhere the people go, not where the devices go.
You can use a handy "snooze" feature to make yourself unavailable for any amount of time. You can also block people.
The other cool thing is that Hangouts are real-time, asynchronous and persistent. Wait, what?
In the old days, these were mutually exclusive. Real-time messaging, like texting and IM, is ephemeral. If you're there for it, great. If you're not, you might miss the message. Email is asynchronous and persistent, but not a real-time medium. But if you're away from Hangouts when someone sends you a message, a notice will pop up on your desktop when you launch Chrome. The message will be there when you open the mobile app.
In fact, the whole history of your conversations with each person or each group of people will go back for months and even years if you never delete them. Theoretically, conversations never end unless you actively delete them. (If you choose to delete the conversation, it's deleted across all devices.)
Hangouts can send a copy of conversations to your Gmail in-box. You can re-ignite the conversation from the Gmail message.
Hangouts has many of these tiny features that add up to a communications medium that just feels different. If your experience with Hangouts is like mine, it will fundamentally change how you communicate with people. You will feel more connected, because your conversations are always there with you no matter what.
The only glaring flaw in Hangouts is the lack of SMS support, but Google says that's coming in the future.
Google's announcements this week for both getting information and communicating with people add up to a new relationship with our devices, our information and our family and friends.
With Google's latest offerings, these connections have a new feeling of ever-presence to them -- an ambience, an awareness and an immediacy that didn't used to exist.
I think this is what the future feels like.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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