Debugging a killer launcher feature: Why Google Now on third-party launchers has to jump through hoops

Months ago when Google announced it would be retiring the Google Now Launcher, it also announced that it was releasing code from that launcher for manufacturers to build their own version with, allowing them to put a Google Now page in their pre-loaded launcher. As expected, this code is something third-party launchers would love to play with, and it's already been implemented by Nova Launcher and is in progress for Action Launcher.

There's just one big problem these launchers and others are running into: Google Play won't allow it.

This ain't blowing up anytime soon.

In its current form, implementing a Google Now page in a launcher requires an API that's officially restricted to system apps. Manufacturers can make a launcher with it and pre-load it on their devices as a system app no problem. For third-party developers and non-root users, the API is still usable, but the non-system app or launcher that uses them has to be debuggable, and debuggable apps are not allowed by Google Play's standards.

So how can you use Google Now on Nova Launcher if Nova Launcher's on Google Play?

Sideloaded plugins!

Nova Launcher couldn't integrate the Google Now page into its main app and risk getting kicked off Google Play, so it decided to offload that portion of the launcher to a companion app that users manually download and install once they've checked the oh-so-ominous "Allow installs from Unknown Sources" toggle in security settings. Nova Google Companion plugs into the main Google Play-compliant Nova Launcher and allows you to activate the Google Now page, just like TeslaUnread did for Nova's unread badges for years. And like unread badges, the Google Now page could eventually come to the main app but not while the API's restrictions and Google Play's restrictions both remain in place.

Get off my lawn!

Lawnchair is basically a Pixel Launcher with customizable bells and whistles, and as such it has the Google Now page to the left. Lawnchair is also not on Google Play, instead existing on the developer's site as well as forums like XDA.

Is Google Now worth it?

Swiping left for Google Now while keeping all the bells, whistles, and icon packs of a third-party launcher is great, and I've used Google Now waaaay more since installing the Nova Google Companion than I had in years. That said, Google Now is also a teeny bit outdated. Google Assistant can read me the news, the weather, and control my home. Google Now's feed can show me where I parked (if I somehow forget), some headlines, and some recipes, but it just… doesn't feel as helpful anymore. I know, it's heresy, forgive my sinner's tongue, but the Google Now pane just isn't as vital to me as it felt years ago.

Swipe left

Some users still swear by the Google Now pane, and they are swearing to use the Google Now Launcher until the damn thing just won't execute anymore. I'm all for having the option of Google Now on my quite customized launcher, but I do wonder how much benefit it brings in an Android world where a bigger, better Google Assistant is a long-press away.

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

20 Comments
  • I like the Google Now panels; I use Lawnchair launcher, and it's pretty handy. That being said, I wouldn't miss the panels if it were gone.
  • Pretty much love the Now integration on Nova. I had a shortcut gesture set up, but there's just something I love about having it to the left of the home screen. I guess because I used Google Now Launcher for so long.
  • I use google now and the assistant for slightly different things. Google Now is so important to me that on my GS8, without the ability to swipe to get it, the google app has a permanent spot on my homescreen, since Google Now is just the Google App.
  • What I don't understand is why Google assistant still can't listen to a song and tell you what it is. And Google now still works better to show you things that are relevant like a flight iteniary or movie ticket info or what's on your schedule that day.
  • The only thing that still bugs me about Assistant is that it can't identify songs. Google Now is definitely better for itinerary tracking, but I'm a frequent enough traveler that I don't think Now is even meant to meet my needs in that regard. I'll just stick with my TripIt widget on my home screen for that.
  • On my last trip Google now actually was pretty consistent. My flight number changed and Google now updated accordingly.
  • Oh yeah, Now does a good job of tracking everything. It's just that it's not as conveniently laid out with each flight, hotel stay, car rental, dinner reservation, etc in chronological order as a dedicated travel widget is. Or at least that was my experience with it a while ago. I guess I haven't even tried to use Now as a travel manager since late last year or so.
  • Got it. You might be right. On my last trip I didn't take a plane but kept everything on Google trips. That was pretty decent.
  • Shazam
  • No need to install a 3rd party app when Google search does the job and then links it to your play music.
  • I like it, and it keeps another icon off of my desktop.
    I have it personalized a little (gotta fix that) , but it's good for quick news, and don't need a news feed. I use the assistant for opening apps that I keep hidden from the launcher, and the app drawer, mostly . The assistant needs to be more bixby-like in it's actions, and more aware, it can't replace gnow, for what gnow does. Having a quick swipe to content means I don't need to open separate apps, or browsers for my interests ,or have the assistant, get it wrong( sometimes I mumble, before my first morning coffee). I'll keep gnow this way, til there's something better.
  • Thanks, Ara. Sometimes you don't know what you've got til it's gone ;D
  • Why not just have a see swipe up to laugh launch? That's what I do with Nova and it seems to work fine. No side loading. Or am I missing something?
  • I used a gesture to launch Now too. But it wasn't as seamless as having it work with the plugin.
  • I used the Google Now panes for a long time, but stopped using it when Google eliminated the option of turning off the news cards/feeds. I want to see what is relevant to me, not every news article from every stinking news source that is paying Google. I miss seeing my reminders and local weather, but I will not put up with the news feeds.
  • I don't need or want the separate pane, but it would be nice if the ok Google hot word would work on custom roms.
  • I have a Pixel and have used Nova through several phones. I love Google Now/Feed - have used it for a long time, although sometimes it gets redundant. Not sure I understand the Nova "Companion". In Nova, I set gesture swipe up to Google Now. What's the trouble? Always hated swiping from the left - I'm a righty. Hardly use Assistant... Mainly for timers/reminders. As others have said, Assistant seems to suck worse with song identification any more. Before Assistant, Google mic worked.
  • I've said the same thing about Action Launcher 3: set a gesture to launch Google when swiping from the far left home screen. I'm not sure why this is such a big deal or problem... And their music match does suck.
  • Am I the only one who turns it off on any Android device I have it on? I detest Google picking stories it wants me to see. I simply want to have a page that tells me traffic to work when I need it, and from work when I need it. Not one drop more. Even when I "pause" web tracking, Google still shows me stories. I even had to set my language to US Virgin Islands to get the Now-On-Tap thing back.
  • I love the Google Now page and was saddened to hear that the Google Now launcher will not be maintained going forward. There's a ton of useful information there and swiping left is more convenient that starting up the Google app each time I want to see that information. I swipe left now on my S7 and I get Flipbook. I wish this was something that was customizable - what shows up when you swipe left. Are you listening Samsung?