Does Google Now have a women problem?

Yahoo's Virginia Heffernan wonders about the priorities of Google's "personalized" app

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

by Virginia Heffernan

I’m trying to forgive Google. When I took a broad-daylight photo of a small stretch of land known locally as the skyline of downtown New York City, I expected the skyscrapers to ring a bell with Google Goggles, the visual-search engine. But Goggles came up blank.

“Goggles didn’t recognize anything,” said Google.

My intention really is not to hold the myopia of Google Goggles, a feature of the Google app, against Google Now, another and more fully-fledged feature of the same app, which arrived on iOS in a recent update.

Both do, however, suffer from a kind of myopia, and an inability to recognize their users' actual daily needs.

Google Now, which has gotten high praise from early adopters, who happen to be mostly men in this case, is styled as a source of the exact information you want when you want it. There’s weather at dawn and traffic at commute hour; stocks at market close and open; friends’ birthdays and pending deliveries and flight status and appointments right when appropriate.

I love this idea. Like many people, my phone is the first screen I now touch in the morning. I’m happy to have Google Now acknowledge that app-use is circadian.

But is my day a Google Now day? That’s where doubts creep in. I know that, first thing, I turn to Rise, a peaceful, slow-lighting wake-up clock. Then Pocket Yoga for stretching demos. Then Lift to enter in my priorities for the day, and ReWire for 5 minutes of meditation. Finally, with coffee, I fire up the sharp new Yahoo! app. The night before, I’ve received a canny email from TheStyleUp, which shows the days’ weather in the form of a proposed outfit.

In other words: I don’t look at weather in the morning. I don’t consult a stock ticker; I don’t look at traffic because I don’t have a car. I don’t look at sports scores because none of them are for my son's playground games. And though I travel a fair amount, it’s still a rare day when I need flight info.

The info that Google Now imagines to be the sine qua non of daily existence is, in fact, pretty much the very same data that the English company Filofax believed was the smart gentleman...circa 1960. (Google Now does leave off the numbers of tailors in Paris and Bombay, which once came on Filofax inserts.) Google Now hardly seems to acknowledge that most people’s days have more to do with childcare than with airplanes; with their personal workouts than with the Knicks; and with shift work than with the NASDAQ.

Or maybe there are no “most people”: some people want yoga on waking, some want metrics on their blood sugar, some want to know if Kayla is out of the office and they’ll need to cover for her. And none of those things can be found on Google Now.

There are glimmers of hope. I really like having friends’ birthdays on Now, but for now it’s only the birthdays my Google+ friends, whom I cherish, especially since I have so few. Facebook friends with birthdays today are out of luck; they’re invisible to Now.

And the info you do get from Now—currency conversions and translations of every kind—is buttoned-up and clean-looking. It’s also all free. If you don’t mind cramping your style a bit for the Google paradigm (get set to feel like what you mostly do is look for restaurants and watch fluctuations in the Euro), you’ll find stuff to use here. And the Voice technology is silky smooth—sends you right to answers on the Web.

Maybe this is good news, then: Google Now has some promising features, but it doesn’t fully recognize the real you with your real needs quite yet -- unless, perhaps, you're a hedge fund manager with a passion for professional lacrosse who lives his life between Singapore and Frankfurt. (Speaking of finance: I just tried Wall Street on Google Goggles again. Nothing.)


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