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Google exec talks about “the end of search as we know it”

Google’s Senior Vice President Amit Singhal spoke at the Google I/O conference in mid-May on the evolution of search. The evolution is in part toward what I have called Direct-to-Content (D2C, in The Software Society and this newsletter), what Singhal called “the end of search as we know it.” Singhal said, “Search has evolved considerably in recent years. It can now have a real conversation with you, and even make your day a bit smoother by predicting information you might need. Today we added the ability to set reminders by voice and we previewed ‘spoken answers’ on laptops and desktops in Chrome—meaning you can ask Google a question and it will speak the answer back to you.”

The Knowledge Graph was introduced almost a year ago, and appears selectively for some searches. It uses semantics to understand what related information you might want or alternative interpretations of the search you might mean. Apparently, it will be improved and appear more often. For example, it will include graphs with timelines when applicable. It will also be available in additional languages, including Chinese.

Google’s vision also includes a heavy dose of voice search, bringing Google’s solution closer to a personal assistant model, although Google obviously prefers to think of the personal assistant as an extension of search. Google also throws Google Now into the mix, providing answers before you ask.

Google Now will have new “Cards,” including public transportation schedules and recommendations of books, TV shows, music, and video games. A Reminder functionality is a new addition as well.

The general press, seeking to give the collection of features a name has often referred to the collection as Google Now, but that name seems to be limited to the proactive component by Google. Google refers to the collection of search features as the “Google Search app,” available both for Android and iOS.

Voice search is available in both Android and iOS by pressing a microphone button. In the Chrome browser, the search will be extended to a voice-only mode, allowing “waking up” listening mode by saying “Okay Google.” (This suggests Google wants its personal assistant identity to be simply “Google.”) The voice interaction will be more context-sensitive, including understanding when a request is an extension of a previous request. For example, if you just asked for the address of a restaurant and say “directions,” it will assume you mean directions to the restaurant. It can handle words in requests such as ‘it’ and ‘here,’ understanding your location and what you have asked before.

Singhal said that understanding speech, natural language, and conversation are priority technological challenges the company is addressing. It is also conversational in the sense of working with natural language, e.g., “OK Google, show me things to do in Santa Cruz.”

Making the conversational search part of Chrome means it will be available on multiple devices and operating systems. This moves in the direction of making the conversational search ubiquitous and device-independent. Google has optimized Chrome so that users get the same experience on both mobile devices and on the web. Even for games, Google introduced Cloud Save to save data such as player progression across devices.

Beyond the focus of this blog, Google also announced features such as improved Google maps. The app will have improved navigation and a new design, coming this summer. Hangout is a chat feature, a new unified, cross-platform messaging service for iOS, Android, and Chrome—an alternative to classical text messages and perhaps Twitter. There are also features that ease the handling of photos, including automatically saving them in the cloud. Google +, Google’s alternative to Facebook, is also getting a number of upgrades. “Google Play for Education” has been launched as an app store for teachers.

Google CEO Larry Page delivered the closing address, summarizing, “Technology should do the hard work so people can get on to the things they enjoy in life.”

Google later announced that it plans to bring the natural-language voice searches to the Chrome Web browser for Apple’s iOS. Users press a microphone icon and speak the query. In some cases, the app will speak the answer rather than display it. A date wasn’t announced for the rollout of the update.

The “Google Search app” in Google’s words:

Google Search app for Android: The fastest, easiest way to find what you need on the web and on your device.

* Quickly search the web and your phone or tablet
* Use your voice to search and more
* Get personalized results based on your location

Plus: *Google Now* gets you just the right information at just the right time. It tells you today’s weather before you start your day, how much traffic to expect before you leave for work, and more.

(As of May 24, 2013)


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