How Google will change your life

After years of telling us all about the world, Google is turning it inward—to our daily lives with a personal assistant app.

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It woke you up this morning. While you were scarfing down cereal, it told you when to head to the gym. On the way there, it showed you how far you ran and how much you lifted last time and what your goals for today should be. After the workout, it told you to hurry up if you were going to make that 9 a.m. meeting and suggested a quicker route to work. And your afternoon flight? It told you it was delayed and suggested a great café close by to pass the time. You didn’t have to tell it a thing. It just…knows. “It” is not the future. It’s right now. Or rather, it’s Google Now. This latest product for the mobile Android operating system is not only a glimpse into how the search giant sees our lives evolving, it’s also a peek at how Google sees itself. Now might be the first Google product that screams loud and proud just how much the company knows about you—and how much more it wants to know.

Now was just one of a raft of new products Google unveiled at its annual developer conference on June 27, and the array of products demonstrated just how ubiquitous the company wants to be in your life. The day’s announcements included a new version of the Android OS for the smartphone in your pocket; the new Nexus 7 tablet computer for the couch; a set-top sphere called Nexus Q to pipe music and movies to your TV; a cloud-computing platform for your business; and the ultimate in cyber nerd fantasy, Google Glass, a pair of Android-enabled glasses to stream data directly into your eyeballs. That’s on top of already announced projects like a fleet of self-driving cars.

These Jetson-esque gadgets and services are easy to get excited about. Google’s infectious enthusiasm—embodied in goofy home page doodles, cute robot mascots and “Don’t be evil” sloganeering—also feels cheerfully irresistible. But the trade-off of all these wonderful advances largely involves surrendering every intimate detail of your daily life. Which, for many, hints at something much darker.

Google’s $40 billion in yearly revenues doesn’t come from these futuristic gadgets. The engine that powers its bottom line is advertising, and that engine runs on knowledge about you: your interests, schedule, family, friends, work, troubling cat-video obsession and everything you’ve ever bought or wanted to buy. Every new scrap of knowledge helps Google advertise to you better.

Earlier this year, the company whittled down its more than 70 different privacy agreements for all of its products to just one. The move simplified the privacy deal Google strikes with its users—and improved its ability to track you no matter where in the Googleverse you go. When something brings in more than 95% of revenues, it should come as no surprise that a company will go to great lengths to obtain any information it can to boost those revenues.

As Google increases its reach and influence in our lives—a million people buy an Android phone every day—one can’t help but wonder where the quirky 14-year-old search engine company is headed. After years of offering us more and more information about the world around us, Google’s view is turning inward, trying to understand our needs and wants, the minutiae of our daily lives. It’s all part of the company’s plan to wrap us in its big digital bear hug, making our lives more convenient, organized and pleasant. For some, however, that embrace already feels stifling. Certainly, there is a balance to strike between amazingly useful tech products, competition issues, and privacy and security concerns. But when does scary cool become just plain scary?

Most of our services actually know very little about the user,” says Bradley Horowitz, vice-president of product management for Google+ . “We don’t know much more about them beyond those search keystrokes, their IP address, their browser.” That’s why CEO Larry Page has put a new emphasis on integrating social data into all the company’s products through the Google+ network, says Horowitz. “Imagine if we deeply understood that user, how that information could better serve them? We haven’t given users a place to tell us things like who they are, who they know and what they care about. When that information can be put into service to the user, we can provide a better quality of product across everything we do—we can build a better browser, a better phone and, yes, we can serve better ads.”

Ah, yes, the advertising. This is usually where things take a darker turn. Long has the great web trade-off hinged on the omnipresence of advertising. Want to read, watch, or listen to something for free? Watch this ad. And for about as long as that’s been happening, Google has been the King of All Ads, helping everyone from Mom & Pop outfits to Fortune 500 companies find new customers online. That expertise has made Google an unstoppable profit machine.

But it’s also made the company a lightning rod for concerns about online privacy. The more Google knows about you, the more valuable its service to advertisers. Critics find this arrangement invasive and creepy; every uptick in profits for Google means a little less privacy for the rest of us.

Horowitz says the company’s advertising model is self-regulating. “Our philosophy with ads is that they can and should be useful to the user. We actually measure this quite closely, and we don’t want to show ads that aren’t valuable. That’s why Google ads work so well.”

Senior vice-president of advertising Susan Wojcicki echoes that sentiment. “What’s good for the user is good for the advertiser,” she says. “That’s always our goal, to find the perfect ad.”

Many doubt that utopian vision. John Simpson is a former executive editor at Tribune Media and deputy editor of USA Today, now heading up Consumer Watchdog’s Inside Google project that focuses on the company’s dominance over the Internet. “We are not Google’s customers,” says Simpson. “We’re Google’s product. We use their services, that are now all combined, creating a digital dossier on us that becomes the real product offered to advertisers.”

If Target can predict a pregnant woman’s due date based solely on her buying habits at its stores (and it can), then just imagine how intimately Google—with access to your e-mail, calendar, address book and list of friends and acquaintances—could know you already. And the explosive growth of the mobile Android platform is only extending Google’s reach.

“We know a lot more about you through your phone than a desktop,” says Wojcicki. “For example, we know your location. And we know if you’re walking down a street and given an ad for something on that street, you’re much more likely to respond to it than if you’re sitting in your office.”

Smartphones are now more powerful computers than PCs were a decade ago, and these advances bring with them even more technological delight—and questions about privacy—than their desktop brethren, thanks to always-on GPS. Google doubled down on mobile when it completed its purchase of Motorola Mobility in May. Analysts have been wary of Google’s move into hardware manufacturing, as it’s a major diversion from the company’s core strengths. On hardware, Google will have to become “comfortable with second place,” says eMarketer analyst David Hallerman, which may be difficult for a company used to being the biggest player in search and advertising. Edward Jones analyst Josh Olson is also skeptical, but sees continued potential. “They have Android on more than half of the world’s smartphones,” says Olson. “And when you combine that with predictive software, the cloud and their location-based software with local ads, offers or Google Wallet, we think that’s where they can really see some strength going forward.”

The kicker, as always, is what you’ll be willing to surrender to access all those goodies. “Obviously, this hinges on the users wanting this functionality and opting in,” says vice president of engineering for Android Hiroshi Lockheimer. “Once they do, we can start providing really interesting answers to users that right now they’re accustomed to asking for. That’s the idea behind Google Now—moving from a demand-based interaction to more of a suggestion-based interaction.”

When Google senior vice-president of search Amit Singhal was growing up in India in the mid-1970s, he spent a lot of time watching Star Trek reruns on a black-and-white TV. “My imagination was totally captured,” he says. “I was just enchanted with the idea that I could talk to a computer and know whatever I wanted to know.” Today we’re closer to that vision than you might think, he says. “Google Voice Search and Google Now are baby-steps toward the dream we all want, which is indeed the Star Trek computer. We’re not there yet , but we’ve sown the right seeds in all the right technologies for us to get there.”

It’s a future that will be built on a foundation of not just brilliant technological advances, but shrewd corporate manoeuvring. For years, the company blithely brushed off government concerns about privacy and competition, but that appears to be changing. Google is under close scrutiny in both Europe and the U.S. for alleged anti-competitive practices. EU regulators have threatened billions in fines, while in the U.S. the FTC has imposed a record $22.5-million penalty—its largest single fine ever—after finding Google illegally tracked users of Apple’s Safari browser.

The company isn’t taking all this government scrutiny lying down. Google has dramatically increased its lobbying activities in Washington in the past few years: it spent US$8.95 million on lobbying just in the first half of 2012 (compare that to the US$9.7 million it spent in all of 2011). Google now spends as much on lobbying as Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Apple do—combined.

Simpson says Google sees its own technological prowess through rose-coloured glasses (or Glass, maybe?) and that the ability to collect and store such vast amounts of consumers’ personal data carries with it tremendous implications for both individuals and society as a whole. “Google has jumped in feet-first and assumed the ability to gather all this information is only good and should be maximized,” says Simpson. “I don’t think Google has done anywhere near enough thinking about these implications.” In ye olde pre-Internet days, we used to have a certain level of privacy protection built in, because it was such a huge pain to amass any significant amount of data on someone. Now, “it’s all easily attainable, and possible to use in any number of unauthorized ways,” says Simpson. “And that’s a huge dilemma for society.”

In a July Bloomberg opinion piece, Harvard Law visiting professor Susan Crawford wrote that competition law is unclear on the emerging ecosystems that divide consumers into branded silos. “Consumers will have a choice of competing handsets, as they do now,” she predicts. “But their subsequent options (what calendar, what map, what apps) may be sharply limited. Signing up with a particular brand of personal assistant will lead to a cascade of path-dependent filters, as software learns more about its users and serves them more directly.”

Crawford thinks that Google will come to terms with European and U.S. competition authorities, but that may be a solution to a fading problem. “As ‘search’ becomes an anachronism and personalization the new normal,” she writes, “we’ll have deeper issues to deal with.”

Google’s senior vice-president of engineering Vic Gundotra was in the middle of his keynote at the recent developer’s conference when he was interrupted. Bounding onto the stage beside him was company co-founder Sergey Brin, who cut into the heavily scripted day of new product demonstrations, short of breath and in a hurry. “You’ve seen some compelling demos here,” he said. “They were slick. This is going to be nothing like that. This can go wrong in about 500 different ways. So, who wants to see a demo of Glass?” The crowd went wild.

High above the conference centre flew a blimp. In that blimp were four skydivers, each wearing a Glass unit. They jumped, live-streaming the freefall through a Google+ video feed all the way until they parachuted onto the roof of the building and made their way to the stage with Brin, exchanging a multitude of high-fives.

It was a perfect expression of Google’s ambitions: users who are constantly connected, grinning to each other the whole time at just how awesome it all is. The question of whether you’d actually want to livestream your plummet earthward—or your morning commute, or your friend’s birthday party—went mostly unasked.

There’s no shortage of Chicken Littling to go around, of course; fretting about its influence on our lives is as old as the web itself. But one of the things that made Google special from the very start was its unwavering engineer-inspired mantra that any problem could be solved with enough data. We’re now just beginning to see how that can apply at the micro level of our day-to-day life. Millions of us are now participating in Google’s experiment—sometimes with enthusiasm, sometimes alarm, sometimes a mixture of both—and the case is far from closed.

We might decide someday that the price is too steep. But experience—and that Foursquared, Instagrammed tweet you just uploaded—suggests that soon enough this angst will seem a little quaint, and we’ll have some new intrusion to feel anxious and creeped-out about. Along with some really cool new toys to play with.

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