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Google Now and speech recognition get big updates in Android 4.4 KitKat

Google Now and speech recognition get big updates in Android 4.4 KitKat


Sundar Pichai calls new features a preview of 'how we are beginning to bring apps and the web together'

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Nexus 5 Google Now KitKat PRESS
Nexus 5 Google Now KitKat PRESS

Over the past year and a half Google's steadily added new features and cards to its predictive search assistant, Google Now. With Android 4.4 KitKat and the new Nexus 5, the company's taking the opportunity to upgrade Google Now and search on mobile with the goal of "bringing apps and the web together," as Android and Chrome OS chief Sundar Pichai said in a meeting with press today.

Search has always been closely tied with Google Now, and it's receiving some much-appreciated attention today. Search results no longer ignore the apps on your phone. Google is now crawling through mobile apps to find their content and bring features directly to the fore, just like the company has done for years on the web. For example, a simple search for a restaurant will offer a link directly to that restaurant page in the OpenTable app if you have it installed, allowing you to set up a reservation. Or a recipe search will bring you to the result directly inside of the AllRecipes app — rather than the mediocre mobile website. Pichai says the new feature will be rolling out by mid-November with a select number of apps, and an API that will allow all developers to enable their apps will be available "in the coming months."

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"We wanted to focus on what Google does best."

Speech recognition is receiving some upgrades as well. With the update you'll be able to search just by saying "OK, Google" once the device is on. The company has also added a feature that lets you engage in a conversation with your phone to clarify what you're searching for. As Google product manager Johanna Wright explained today, the voice assistant will ask clarifying questions in a type of "back and forth." It seemed a bit clunky in a demo, but the idea is that your phone will ask you questions like "which Jennifer?" and "mobile or work?" if it doesn't understand precisely what you want to do. Hopefully there will be fewer mistakes, too, as Google promises speech recognition now makes 25 percent fewer word errors than last year. If there is a mistake, however, you'll be able to quickly highlight and change the incorrect word.

Lastly, Google Now is occupying prime real estate in Android 4.4. With the Nexus 5, a new launcher lets you pull up the assistant by swiping to the right on the homescreen. You can also pull up Now with the old gesture from the bottom of the screen. When you get into Now, there will be a selection of new cards to greet you. Google is keeping track of what people search in certain locations so that it can bring you relevant websites automatically. If you're at Yellowstone National Park, for instance, Google Now will offer you the website that shows when the geyser is set to go off. Or if you're at a movie theater it'll show you Fandango.

"We’re able to figure out which website and just which updates from that website are relevant to you."

Google Now will also keep track of your interests better than it has in the past. It'll bring up new articles in topics you're interested in, and if there's a particular website you read — say, The Verge — Now will keep you up to date on what you care about. Wright maintained that "we’re not showing tons and tons of updates ... we’re able to pull out the needle in the haystack." We're excited to see for ourselves when the update hits in the coming weeks.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that you could wake up the Nexus 5 by saying "OK, Google." Google was unclear on this point during a briefing, but it turns out you cannot do this on the Nexus 5.