Nowadays, Google Assistant is as well-known as Siri and Alexa, but it wasn’t Google’s first attempt at an assistant-like feature. The company’s first attempt was named “Google Now,” and it had some truly great ideas.
Apple released the first version of Siri in 2011, but Google wasn’t far behind with the release of Google Now in 2012. However, the Google Assistant we know now is much more like Siri than Google Now. Back in 2012, Google was doing something very different.
Like many Google products, Google Now was changed and repurposed over the years until it eventually was killed off. Let’s take a look back at Google’s first assistant.
The world was introduced to Google Now during the company’s big developer conference in 2012. It was announced alongside Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and was first available on the Galaxy Nexus made by Samsung.
Google Now was not an assistant in the way we think of virtual assistants nowadays. It was considered an extension of Google Search. The general idea was Google would surface the information you might need right now without any input from you.
It did this with “cards” in the Google Now feed. You would launch Google Now by opening the Google app or swiping up on the home button on Android devices. You’d find a feed of these cards with information that was aimed to be what you needed right at that moment.
What Did Google Now Do?
In the beginning, Google Now was pretty limited, but it quickly gained more abilities.
For example, let’s say you’re going on a trip. You have a confirmation email from the airline in your Gmail inbox. Google would display the relevant details from the email on a card—including boarding pass—in your Google Now feed on the day of your flight.
Another example is package tracking. In a similar way, you probably have an order receipt in your Gmail inbox. Google would display the tracking number and show its progress on a card in your Google Now feed.
Google Now could do more than read your Gmail inbox, though. There were also location-based cards. You could get restaurant recommendations for your current location, information about events happening nearby, and, of course, a frequently updated local weather card.
This concept was considered pretty revolutionary at the time. You could have fun conversations with Apple’s Siri, but Google Now was actually useful. It was super handy to open Google Now and get a readout of your day. Upcoming appointments, commute times, birthdays, and so much more, right there without having to ask for it.
The Slow Decline
While Google Now was pretty great and it had a lot of loyal fans, it had a branding problem. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa both had actual names and personalities that people connected with. They felt more natural and like real “assistants.”
Google Now could certainly do voice searches, but it wasn’t as conversational. It really felt like you were just using Google in a different way. And as cool as the Now concept was, it didn’t always work. Sometimes you still needed to manually ask for something.
Gradually, Google began phasing out its use of the term “Google Now.” This coincided with the release of Google Assistant in 2016. Google took a lot of the ideas of Google Now and infused it with a friendly voice
For a while, Google Now was completely gone, but a similar feature returned in the form of the “Today” view in the Google Search app. Not long after that, it was rebranded again to “Google Assistant Snapshot.” The idea remained the same; it was information from Google Assistant that didn’t require any input.
Google Digs Another Grave
It didn’t really matter what Google called the Now replacements—“Today” or “Snapshot”—it was clear that they were not a priority. Their prominence in Android was replaced by Google Assistant.
Google essentially buried Snapshot in the Google app for a while, then briefly brought it into the limelight again in late 2020. You could still access it both on the iPhone and Android, but by this time it just wasn’t something many people knew or cared about.
Snapshot limped on for a while until Google finally pulled the plug in early 2022. You’ll still be able to ask Google Assistant for all the information you can find in Snapshot, but only if you ask. The concept of intelligently providing information before you ask for it is officially dead.
Long Live Google Discover
There’s one product we haven’t mentioned yet, but it almost certainly has contributed to Google Now’s downfall. Google Now used to live on the left-most home screen on Google Pixel phones and some other devices, but it was replaced by Google Discover.
Google Discover is the company’s content aggregating service. It serves up articles from around the web that it thinks you’ll be interested in. Google Now did a little bit of this, but it wasn’t the primary focus. Discover has become a pretty popular method of finding news both on Android phones and iPhones.
The unfortunate reality is Google Discover drives a lot more engagement than Google Now, Today, or Snapshot ever could. Engagement is good for revenue. That makes Discover a very important product for Google. It may not be as useful to consumers, but it makes money.
The rise and fall of Google Now is a story of being a little ahead of its time and ultimately going the way of the more mainstream alternatives. Siri was not as good as Google Now, but people loved talking to it. Google realized that was where it needed to go, and now we have Google Assistant.
It’s unfortunate that Google Now couldn’t continue to live on in Snapshot, but it was clearly not a priority within the company. “Hey Google” is here to stay.