Google Now has me locked in with all Google services, but I'm not sure I'm thankful for that

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Google Now has me locked in with all Google services, but I'm not sure I'm thankful for that
Thanksgiving has come and gone, and during the holiday I have taken some time to consider the various products and services in the mobile world for which I am thankful. This is actually a much more difficult process for me than you might think, because one of my favorite things to do is to play around with new products. This means that I'm constantly installing and uninstalling apps on my devices (a Nexus 5 and a Nexus 10), as well as my wife's iPad, and only a very specific set of products are kept in consistent use. I am constantly testing out different messaging services, news reader apps, games, various mobile browsers, weather app, etc. But, one service that has thus far been immune to abandonment from me has been Google Now.

Big companies are always looking to add new features or create new products that will help to "lock you in" to their ecosystems. Apple has been best known for this by controlling the entire line from hardware to software and the integration between those products. No company is innocent when it comes to this, but it is always in how the lock is set that makes the difference. Locking in users via monetary concerns, like iTunes, Google Play, or any other content store, is annoying but an acceptable side effect of doing business (at least with apps and games, not so much for other content). For me, Google Now has been the best lock yet, but I'm not sure I'm happy about it.

Integration is always the name of the game when it comes to locking in users. It's why Microsoft got into so much trouble when it was making Internet Explorer the default browser in Windows and bundling Office; and, why it was initially forced to split the company into the operating system and software divisions. It's why Facebook keeps adding more and more features to keep you on the site and away from that chaotic mess that exists outside of Facebook's walls. It's the reason why Microsoft created SkyDrive and the Metro UI, why Apple created iTunes and iCloud, why Amazon made the Kindle, Kindle Fire and its own cloud services, and why Samsung has slowly been replacing Google products with its own options. 

The good side of Google lock-in

Every company wants to keep the users it has, and incentivize other users to switch. Google is no different, but it has had the most conflict around most of its attempts to unify its products. If you look anywhere on the web, you're bound to find users complaining about Google+, because for some reason people think that Google should be the one company to leave all of its products as independent islands. The loudest voices will rage continuously about Google+ taking over YouTube (as if there has been nothing wrong with the rabid trolling in YouTube comments.) People complain about being "forced" to use Google+, even though no such thing exists. Your Google sign-in may create a Google+ profile, but the accuracy of the information there is still up to you, and in the end it is still just a Google sign-in and you don't have to use the main Google+ service if you don't want to. 

Of course, on the other side of the fence is the service that everyone loves, the service that couldn't exist without Google+ and the unification it brings to Google products: Google Now. Sure, there are those who get a bit creeped out by how much Google knows about you because of Google Now, but the use of the service is directly correlated to how much info you give to Google in the first place. If you don't use Gmail, or Google Calendar, or don't have the GPS or Google Search history turned on for your account, Google Now will be pretty much useless. 

But, if you live the Google life, as I have for years now, Google Now could quickly become the greatest piece of software that exists in your daily use. Suddenly, you won't have to search for directions or traffic to work or home or a place you recently searched for; you won't have to dig into your mail for shipping or travel info; and, you won't even have to go to a specific app to find sports scores or news that you're interested in because Google Now gives it all to you in one place. The convenience of the service is remarkable, and the serendipity of data is getting better and better at giving you information that you never expected right when you want it the most. 

All of this leads to a powerful lock-in to both Google services and to Android itself; because, while Google Now does exist on iOS, feature parity comes and goes for iOS users. Android users are always getting the newest options first (even if you aren't on the newest version of Android), and integration with the system is obviously much deeper, especially if you have a Nexus device that offers the Google Experience launcher. You wouldn't expect it, given how easy it is to simply swipe up from an on-screen home button and get into Google Now, but having it as part of your homescreen setup makes it feel much less like a separate piece to Android. Having it right there gives a more seamless experience to Google Now, meaning easier engagement and a stronger lock-in force. 

Users don't always want to be locked-in

Unfortunately, while lock-in is good for Google and for its hardware partners, it isn't always the best for users, even if it means that we get an amazing piece of tech like Google Now. As has been explained, Google Now can offer a huge amount of value, and you can get that value whether you're on Android (4.1 or higher) or iOS, but there's no option for Windows Phone users, nothing for BlackBerry users, and there is very little chance that you should expect to see Google Now on any of the new challengers in the mobile space like Tizen, FirefoxOS, or Ubuntu. It might be possible on Jolla, because of its support for Android apps (and even ways to access Google Play from the platform), but there's no guarantee that such a deeply integrated app like Google Search will work properly there. 

This can be quite annoying because Google almost always offers its services (to an extent) on any platform you want either through proper apps (on iOS), open standards support (for Gmail and Calendar), or web apps on any HTML5-capable platform (Google+, YouTube, Drive, Maps, etc); but, Google Now doesn't yet have a web app available, nor is there one in the foreseeable future. As I've talked about before, Google+ is the social hub for Google services whether you choose to use it or not, and Google Play is the content hub for Google products. But, a hub is not necessarily a lock, or at least not a very well made lock. Social services depend on social links, and if the people you want aren't on Google+, you won't find much stickiness there. Content services depend on users spending enough money that they wouldn't want to lose their investment. 

When it comes to Google Now, the lock is much more powerful, because it isn't dependent on social connections or content purchases. Google Now leverages your interests, daily activities, and habits. It requires limited active input on your part in order to provide value, because all of the data is generated by your use of other Google products. And, it will change and adapt as your life does because of that limit to active input. But, the other side to that coin is that because Google Now generates value in such a passive way, it is far less of a voluntary decision by a user to get sucked into the product. You have to choose to be active on Google+; you have to choose to purchase content in Google Play; but, for Google Now all you have to choose to do is use some (not even all) of Google's services.

Beyond that, Google Now is the real lock of the Google ecosystem because the only place to get it is in the Google Search app either on Android or iOS. It is by far the most restricted product in Google's arsenal, and for good reason. This is all to be expected of course. If you really love iTunes, you can't expect it to work with a non-Apple device because iTunes is the real lock-in for Apple's ecosystem, but if you value Android and Google for the choice each offers, Google Now becomes something of a love/hate relationship.

The difficulty of choice

For those of us who like to test out new options, and experiment with different platforms, any lock is troublesome, but after such a long time in the Google world I never expected such a powerful lock from the company. It is also quite annoying for any of you who are simply tired of the system you've got, and want a change. Because of the power inherent in integration, the best option is to go all-in on a certain ecosystem, regardless of if a specific product works better for you, because integration will always be better. Maybe you prefer Gmail, but would rather use Office 365 instead of Google Drive; or, the other way around and you prefer Outlook and Google Drive. Maybe you have a ton of content that you purchased in iTunes, but would rather use Android or Windows Phone. Maybe you don't like any of those options, and you get content from Amazon, email from Yahoo, docs through Zoho, calendar/tasks from Any.Do, and search through DuckDuckGo. 

It all ends up making user choices that much more complex and difficult. If I really wanted to, I could abandon Google services altogether. I could switch to Outlook or Yahoo mail, move my personal docs to Office 365 or Zoho, my tasks and to-dos to Remember the Milk or Zendone, my photos to Flickr or 500px, videos to Vimeo, cancel my Music All Access subscription for Spotify, and stop using Google Search and even Chrome if need be. As far as functionality on a per-app basis, I might not lose much, could actually gain features in some scenarios; and depending on the choices I made, it could help quite a bit if I wanted to trade in my Nexus devices for an iPhone or a Nokia Lumia. The trouble is that each service wouldn't work as well together; and, like many others, I won't be able to completely abandon certain products because of work. 

And, eventually I would miss Google Now, because there is no replacement for what it offers, which is both the mark of an innovative product, but also a well crafted lock. Because of the way I am personally wired, I constantly want to try new things. My wife has an iPhone and iPad, which helps to satiate desires to mess around with that mobile system. I have my duo of Nexus devices, which covers the Android side. When I want to, I can even wipe my Nexus devices and load up Ubuntu Touch to see how progress is going there (although uses are still fairly limited there). But, as much as I enjoy the Windows ecosystem, the convergence that it offers, and the hardware that Nokia has built, Google's locks on me limit my options in adopting Windows Phone. 

Conclusion: Google's tipping point

To an extent, I do understand Google's unwillingness to spend resources building for a platform with such a small market share. But, it is hard to ignore the strides that Windows Phone has made in the market, and it seems inevitable that at some point, it will become the third major mobile platform (assuming you don't yet consider it in that category.) The latest numbers from IDC say that Windows Phone has grown its global market share to 3.6%, and there have been various reports that show Windows Phone has been doing even better in some major European markets. So, the question really becomes: where is the tipping point in Google's view of emerging platforms?

It will certainly be a while before we see Tizen, Ubuntu, Jolla, or Firefox making enough waves to be considered as part of the conversation, but it is certainly possible that at least one of them will make a run at a respectable amount of market share. My money in that race would be with Tizen, because it always seems like a bad idea to bet against the Samsung juggernaut, but nothing is set yet. 

At some point, Google will have to recognize that a platform that had been considered "emerging" has crossed the barrier into being "established", and Google will have to commit real resources. Google may have a vested interest in the success of Android, and its Google Play services within that platform, but its overarching goal is still to bring its services to as many people as possible, regardless of how they access the internet. Native products are always better than web apps, and Google wants more eyes on its ads, which means more native apps on more platforms. Of course, as yet, Google Now doesn't contain ads, but that will no doubt change eventually, or at least there will be a wider range of cards for local offers and deals, which will serve the same purpose. 

That may be the impetus for Google to loosen the restrictions on Google Now. Or, it may just be a matter of time until Now gets a web app component, which has been rumored for a long time. Time will tell, but until Google removes the lock on Google Now, I know that I'll find it very difficult to leave Android. 
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