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Google Now’s first run at iOS has lots of style, less substance so far

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Will Google or will Google not bring Now to iOS has been the subject of plenty of back and forth in the iOS blogosphere over the last few months, which isn’t a big surprise. After some pretty abysmal early entries into the App Store, Google has really gotten their act together over the last year, and released some very polished software for iOS. Google+, Maps, Gmail, and Chrome are all quite strong, and routinely rank highly in the Free Software download rankings. With this now solid track record of releasing top notch versions of their best products for iOS, I figured it was only a matter of time until Now showed up, in one form or another.

It arrived today, in the form of an update to the Google Search app for iOS. Kevin already took it for a brief spin and wrote up some initial thoughts here. Basically, you get a lot of what Google offers baked into its Jelly Bean devices, just contained in a single iOS app. The feature looks good, the navigation is smooth, and it is easy to use and understand.

However, after the warm fuzzies of Google’s apparent generosity fade away, this addition to Google’s battery of iOS offerings comes up lacking when compared with its sibling apps. Here’s why:

1. No Notifications

I’ve been perusing articles detailing the arrival of Google Now from around the web for the last hour, and I’m surprised how few even bother to mention the lack of notifications. What good is Google Now on any platform without live notifications? Exactly. Just in time information isn’t much good if you have to think to open the app every five minutes to get it.

It isn’t as if Google doesn’t know how push notifications on iOS work, either. All of their current apps except for the Search app have this capability. In fact, the Search app used to have them, as well. Before there were separate apps for Google’s other services, the Search app could be set up to send you Gmail notifications if you didn’t want to use Apple’s built in Mail client. However, I checked a little while ago, and this feature has been removed.

I don’t see this as a malicious ommision, necessarily. However, overly cautious or slow is definitely fitting. Whatever the reason, until push notifications are put back into the Search app, Google Now on iOS is nothing but an over-glorified tech demo.

2. No GPS

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(This is based on an interview that Matthew Panzarino of The Next Web did with Google Now Product Management Director Baris Gultekin, where the assertion is made that Google Now on iOS does NOT use GPS. However, it does tie into Location Services, and the location icon is triggered when the app is used.)

Again, I think Google has a little experience in this department on iOS. Maps, maybe? What good are drive times and direction reminders going to be if Google can’t effectively pin down your location? Believe it or not, even Google misses WiFi an Cellular positioning, sometimes. I’ve actually experienced this using Google Now on an Android device, and was pretty disappointed that it had no idea where the heck I was.

I’m sure that battery life is a concern, but people who already use GPS apps know that battery drain is a tradeoff for the useful information you get in return. Also, most of the iOS turn-by-turn GPS apps in the App Store, such as Navigon’s Mobile Navigator, have a feature where they will automatically be disabled after a certain period of background operation when on battery power. So, this is not a problem in search of a solution. It’s just waiting on one.

GPS is a more acceptable temporary ommision than notifications, but Google still needs to include it eventually for it to be completely reliable.

3. Missing Cards

There are several key components of Google Now that are available in this first roll out, but here is what’s not included:

  • Airline boarding pass
  • Activity summary
  • Events
  • Zillow
  • Fandango
  • Concerts
  • Research topic
  • Nearby events

The main features of Now are present, but a few of these, such as Nearby Events and Airline Boarding passes are frequently praised by travelers. Google Now on iOS isn’t crippled because these aren’t present, but there isn’t any compelling reason to leave them out, other than maintaining an advantage for the Android version of the service. No over notification or battery concerns here. This is just web-based, Google services information.

It would be wise for Google to eventually make all of Now’s arsenal of features available in iOS. The intent of this service is to drive usage of Google’s services with users being rewarded with getting this useful information gleaned from it. However, there are plenty of other apps in the iOS App Store that handle what these missing features provide, and Now doesn’t have the advantage of being baked into this OS. It has to stand toe-to-toe with everybody else. Unless Google wants iOS users turning to other apps on the iOS platform for this missing information, it needs to be a part of Now. Like Now.

4. Google Services Only

I’m not sure how far this reaches beyond the Calendar, but I did notice in my testing on my last Android tablet that Google Now could take information from sources outside of Google into account. Specifically, I got a notification from Google Now to leave for a meeting that was in my Microsoft Exchange account. It was one of the few things about Now that did impress me, at the time.

Unfortunately for us iOS users, this one isn’t an oversight by Google. I doubt this will be possible on iOS, and even if it is, it’s probably not worth the effort for them to add. If the intent on Google Now is to drive the use of Google’s services, why let iOS users off the hook from using Calendar? Unfortunately, this makes the calendar aspects of Now useless for me, as I left Google Calendar several years ago for other options.

With the downsides of Google Now’s first appearance on iOS addressed, I definitely hope that Google’s iOS team will quickly fill in the holes from items 1-3. Like Gmail, Maps, Chrome, and Google+, it looks great and works smoothly right now. However, without notifications and GPS, the true usefulness of Now is severely hampered. Without the missing cards from Android, it just looks like a cheap knock-off, giving competitors a chance of marginalizing its use on iOS. Number 4 illustrates that fact there some things it just won’t ever be able to do on iOS that it can on Android, but some of that’s to be expected.

Be that as it may, it’s in Google’s interest to make Now as compelling as possible on iOS. While Android marketshare grows, the rumors of Apple’s imminent demise continue to prove untrue. While iOS’s insane (and unsustainable) growth has slowed a bit, Apple is still raking in billions from their cash cow, and their profits from app sales and web usage dominance have not dropped off. Google makes high quality iOS apps for a reason. They need iOS users to use their search and their services as much as they need Android. It’s a fact of life, and their recent attitude and attention toward making quality iOS software bear this out. With that in mind, come on Google. Don’t wait. Make Google Now on iOS a premium experience, rather than leaving it as the tech demo that it currently is.

Do you agree? Have a different opinion? I would love to hear it, either way. Feel free to let me know in the comments below, on Twitter @jhrogersii, or on Google+.

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  • I suspect you will like Google Now more as you use it and it adapts to your habits. I had the same initial impressions, but as Google improved the app and I used it more for Android, it became really great. I was sad to part ways when switching to the iPhone, so glad it is now available.

  • James Rogers

    I used it for a while when I had the Nexus 10, and have it currently with the Galaxy Note 8. It doesn’t seem to do much in the Memphis area. Traffic isn’t very accurate (neither is Apple. Waze kills them both), it doesn’t have much local event information, and it doesn’t seem to catch delivery notices in my Gmail. I don’t know. I just don’t see it yet.

  • Om Soni

    It sucks a HUGE amount of battery, even when the app is not running. It uses GPS 24/7 on my iPhone and iPad. Uninstalling.

    • James Rogers

      Have you tried turning off Location Services for the Google Search app in Settings? This could help you verify that it is Google Now that is causing the problem.

      I’ll be interested to see if yours is an isolated case, or if we see a lot of similar reports from iOS users.

      • Om Soni

        Yes, I’ve tried turning off Location Services, but I can’t use Google Now without Location Services. Here’s a screenshot of the Location Services under the Privacy settings. The purple GPS indicator icon is visible beside the Google app, even though I’ve quit Google Now from the multitasking tray.

  • Aethilas

    Google Now doesn’t work outside the US. I am in Costa Rica and can confirm it doesn’t work for me.

  • On my iPhone 4S, I can confirm that Location Services are being used by Google Now… even when the Search app is completely KILLED with that red “(-)” button (that status icon still persists).

    As for GPS: I actually took it on a bike ride to and from school (Saddleback College) today. And of course, every single time I had to get off my bike at a red light, I took the iPhone out of my pocket, fired up the Google search app, loaded the Google Now cards, and then killed the app. And every single time, the Traffic card updated to track me to within 5 feet of my exact location, even while disconnected from Wi-Fi the whole time. That doesn’t just happen without GPS playing a part.

    Speaking of bike ride: Yes, that’s able to be specified in the Traffic card settings as well. Does that also signify an update to the Maps app? Only time will tell.

    As for the missing cards: Many of them (notably Fandango, Concerts, and the airline boarding pass cards) already have Passbook pass counterparts to begin with, so I guess Google just didn’t see a need for them.

    So for me, the ONLY thing that makes no sense is the lack of push notifications. Which as we all know are as easy to implement as popping up a dialog requesting permission from the user to send them…

    • James Rogers

      It’s strange that the lead engineer from Google would be so badly mistaken, but I wonder if that isn’t the case here. After I saw the location services icon after firing up the app, I decided to put my little disclaimer on that section, because I wasn’t completely sure how accurate the information was. Anyway, thank you for letting us know the results of your testing.