At the Day One Android keynote and Google I/O this morning, Google revealed the latest update to the Android operating system. Android 4.1, also known as Jelly Bean, is more of a minor upgrade than a complete overhaul of the operating system.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some interesting new features in the next version of Android: the homescreen and camera app get a makeover, the keyboard is smarter and the operating system as a whole is much faster. But the most fascinating additions to Jelly Bean are in Search–what Google does best.
Search has an updated interface and shows you more comprehensive results. It uses the Google Knowledge Graph to present you search results in information-filled “cards” at the top of your search results. For example, if you’re looking for Bill Murray movies, you will see an image of the actor as well as some biographical information from Wikipedia alongside it. Need to know if you’ll need to pack a jacket for an upcoming weekend excursion? Search will show you a card with a complete weather forecast.
Bring it on, Siri. Google’s Voice Search updates are much faster and the search results contain more information, like Google Image search results or Wikipedia pages for example. You can ask questions more naturally, like “Show me pictures of pygmy marmosets.” Voice Search will bring up a gallery of tiny monkeys for you to peruse. In the demo we saw this morning, Voice Search looked really fast–even speedier than the Samsung Galaxy S III’s S Voice and Apple’s Siri.
Android’s Voice Search now no longer require connectivity to work; you can still use them offline. This is an edge Google’s dictation feature has over Siri, which does require connectivity, since the actual processing for Siri happens in the cloud.
Google Now is perhaps the most intriguing new Search feature. It seems to know everything about you — almost invasively so. It knows what sports teams you like, what your commute is, what buses you ride and where the best restaurants around you are. Google Now uses your search history, calendar information and navigation history to help you be more efficient.
The new feature can help you calculate how long it will take to drive somewhere and suggest alternate routes based on the current traffic conditions. It can also tell what restaurants are along your route. In some ways, it is reminiscent of Bing Local Search in Windows Phone and the new navigation features Nokia Maps (which will ship in Windows Phone 8).
But Google Now goes steps beyond Bing Search. Going on a trip? Google Now will help you navigate the airport by telling you what terminal to go to, if there’s a delay and do currency conversions for where you are heading.
Driving to an A’s game? Google Now will not only tell you the best route to take, but give you score updates if you’re running late (though you might not want to look at your phone too much while you’re on the road).
Google says that Now will get smarter the more you use it and they plan to add even more functionality to it. Right now, it can assist you with traffic, public transit, appointments, flights, sports and travel.
When it comes to Search, Google already has the upper hand compared to its competitors. And with these new updates in Jelly Bean, Android seems to have the strongest Search capabilities on mobile. Of course, we actually have to get our hands on Jelly Bean before making any judgment on how well these Search updates work. But from the demos we saw at Google I/O today, the update is very enticing.