Google Now advances search, aims for Apple's Siri

Analysts warn new voice feature could be helpful, kind of creepy

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google is taking search to another level.

At the company's annual Google I/O developer conference, Google showed off the latest upgrade to its Android operating system - Android 4.1 or Jelly Bean, as it's more likely known. And one of the more interesting aspects of Jelly Bean is the Google Now smart assistant.

Want to know about interesting restaurants as you walk down the street in a new city? Google Now can tell you -- and even offer an alternate route.

The new search-based feature is designed to use your search history, calendar, location and Google Maps to offer helpful information, whether you've missed your train or need an update on your next flight.

"From the very beginning, Android had search at its core," said Hugo Barra, director of Google Product Management, during the conference keynote. "Now, we've got faster and more natural voice search... We're showing you search results in a novel way."

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said that while Google Now is being released with Android 4.1 for mobile devices, he expects it eventually will go beyond that.

"I'd also expect to see Google extend these capabilities onto other platforms, like PCs, through [a] user's Google accounts," he added. "This way, you can have your PC pick up right where your phone left off when it comes to hectoring you about sending a birthday card to your favorite aunt."

The Google Now voice service is an obvious competitor to Apple's Siri, which was introduced with the iPhone 4S last fall.

While Apple has a head start with Siri by being first and getting a lot of mainstream media attention, not all of that attention has been positive. There have been complaints that Siri isn't as helpful or seamless as expected.

With the hundreds of millions of Android users and Siri still getting complaints, Google has an opportunity if Google Now works well, according to industry analysts.

"If the smartphone market was a poker game, Google just matched and raised Apple's Siri bet," said Olds. "While Siri has a nice slate of features, Google Now looks to be coming out of the gate with most, if not all, of the same functionality, but with all of Google behind it, plus what could be a massive amount of developer interest."

Google Now is the logical next step for Google search, said Brad Shimmin, an analyst with CurrentAnalysis.

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