Google Assistant just got proactive — and a lot more useful

A phone showing a Google Assistant menu, with options for some commands you can make
A phone showing a Google Assistant menu, with options for some commands you can make (Image credit: Android Central)

One of Android's killer features for a lot of us was Google Now. Google Now could tell you when your Mastercard payment was coming up, let you know that you might need to take an umbrella for your trip to Cleveland, and remind you about things like that dentist appointment you made 6 months ago and forgot about. Once given access to your Google account — and mind you, it needed a lot of access to everything you have stored in Google — it seemed like a real assistant.

Fast forward a few years, and the debut of Google Assistant proper left many a bit disappointed. Assistant is smart enough to turn on your lights or set your thermostat for you, and that's really cool, but as an assistant, it just wasn't as useful as Google Now. It seemed like a small regression to the dark days before Google was all up in your business, but being helpful about it. Today's news about Assistant getting more proactive looks like it might change that up and make Assistant a bit more ... assistive.

Assistant will do things a bit differently than we're used to seeing. Before the age of smartphones, folks used planners or Dayrunners to lay out the days itinerary and activities. Pick up the dry cleaning at 9, then lunch with Susan at P.F. Changs. Meet with a business contact at 2, then take your little brother to baseball practice at 5. Whether your life is incredibly mundane or if you're some sort of RockGod, a planner you carried around kept track of everything.

Google Now tried to recreate that but use a different format where cards would pop into view when and where they were relevant. That was really cool and really smart. Now you would have directions to the cleaners available at your fingertips or the menu for P.F. Changs on your screen (the Mongolian Beef is to die for). That was helpful information that we didn't have to go looking for, and the fact that we didn't need to search it out is what made Google Now great. Not the interface, nor the way it knew everything. How it presented that bit of extra information was the icing on the cake.

It looks like Assistant is going to give us that bit of extra information, but do it in a way that is a bit retro with a scrolling day planner style view. This allows for some nice changes from how things used to be by keeping everything there to see at a glance on the same screen or card, while still dropping those bits that make it special like a button to make a call or a live traffic map. It's not anything new in itself — Google Assistant will already give you all of this through regular notifications if you provide it with the information — but it's far more useful than a mess of notifications that we will probably end up dismissing by accident or a set of cards that we'll inadvertently swipe away.

No more poking around because we mistakenly swiped the card with our boarding pass away.

I'm looking forward to seeing what I need to know in a modern take on the Today theme from an old Palm Pilot or BlackBerry, but the addition of some extra bits of information like a discovery section that can help me find something to do where I'm at when I'm there, or integration with apps like Google Keep or Todoist are the fascinating features. Allowing Assistant to suggest app actions and dig into an app's data (with our permission, of course) mean that your daily overview will look very different from my daily overview, but we'll both have what we need at our fingertips.

It's the little things that separate a good piece of software from a great piece of software. Checking the traffic or reminding you to pick up a package are little things that we can use plenty of other apps to do, but now that they are bundled into Google Assistant, a good app might become a great one again.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.