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Sundar Pichai and Google Now: how Google's mobile assistant has changed over the years

Amidst the big Google/Alphabet shakeup, a few ex-Googlers weigh in on Sundar Pichai and the state of Google Now.

Published onAugust 24, 2015

google alphabet ceo sundar pichai on stage

It wasn’t too long ago that Larry Page, now CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, announced that Sundar Pichai would follow in his footsteps and take over as the new CEO of Google. Before the big announcement, if you asked almost anyone who they thought would be a worthy successor to Page, most folks out there would tell you Sundar Pichai is the obvious answer – and that’s for good reason. Sundar Pichai has been the Senior Vice President of Android, Chrome and apps at Google for some time, and was just appointed as “czar” of all Google’s major products, including ads, Search, research, Google+, Maps, commerce and infrastructure last year. He’s done some amazing work with Android over the years, which is why his new position as top dog makes perfect sense.

One of the biggest developments Android has seen since the start is the addition of Google Now, the company’s big initiative to feed users relevant information at the right time. Now launched way back at Google I/O 2012 alongside Jelly Bean, which was largely backed by Page at the time. In fact many Googlers have said Now fits in closely with Page’s vision of a future with more intelligent, seamless computing. According to a former Now engineer, “[Page] would open up every single all-hands [meeting] with Google Now.”


Page began stepping away, though, when he began to really focus on the bigger picture. Around this time, according to multiple sources, SVP of search Amit Singhal requested that Google Now should be moved into his division and out of the Android division. But according to multiple sources from Re/code, several Google engineers objected because the service makes much more sense living inside Android as opposed to search. After all, Now is a mobile assistant tailored to particular users, so it makes sense to keep the product inside the Android division.

Pichai ended up approving Singhal’s request to move Now into a new division. Around this time, search began producing less and less revenue as mobile application usage increased, so the company began integrating app indexing into Now to help bring back some revenue. With the move from Android into search, some Now engineers raised their concerns to Pichai. In response to these concerns, Pichai reportedly explained:

Look, I’ve got a lot on my plate. Chrome and Android are my top priorities. Google Now is not on that. I can’t fight that battle for you.
Google is trying to get inside apps - how and why

The newest addition to Google Now is a feature called Now on Tap, which was just announced at I/O 2015 back in May. Now on Tap will be available when Android 6.0 Marshmallow launches to the public, and will be able to give you information when you need it without having to exit what you’re doing. With a simple long press of the home button, Google will scan what’s currently on your screen and pull up relevant information about what it thinks you’re looking for. This will make for easier Google searches, which is, after all, what the company wants most from users.

Google Now on Tap Demo at Google I/O 2015

It’s no secret that Now on Tap will be huge for Android. But even though the feature is almost ready to roll out to Android devices around the world, Google isn’t the first to come up with this breakthrough software experience. Just four days ago, Microsoft announced that its Bing app for Android was receiving a big update, which would bring a similar feature to Android devices. The new feature, dubbed Snapshots, works exactly like Now on Tap – a long press of the home button pulls up a page that aims to bring you relevant information without making you exit your current application.

Microsoft isn’t the only company jumping on this train. Recently, Apple announced a new feature of iOS 9 called Proactive Assistant that aims to give users relevant information when they want it.

Competition isn't the only major hurdle the company is facing with Google Now
Competition isn’t the only major hurdle Google is facing on the Now front, though. With the Now shift into search and more competition arising, according to multiple sources from Re/code, “most” of the original team that built Now has departed. Some employees supposedly grew frustrated with the product, and many felt that Pichai did not prioritize the product as much as Page. Additionally, according to more sources, two of the original Now creators left the company in March and several other engineers left at around the same time, which means there’s only one Now founder left at the company. The sources also said “the experience of seeing their product steered in an unwanted direction was too dispiriting.” They went on to say, “Google is a big company. This is how big companies work.”

Whether the general public shares the same opinions as the now-former Now engineers remains unclear, but what’s obvious is the fact that Google is changing, and it always will. These big changes won’t come without their major hurdles, but that’s par for the course for any new CEO taking over a big company like Google. It’s clear that these next few years will be crucial for Pichai and Google as a whole, and the Google that exists today will probably be widely different from the company we see five years down the road.

With all of that said, are you a fan of Google Now in its current form? Or would you rather see the product as more of a personal voice assistant, similar to Siri or Cortana?

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