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In 2015, Google's Personal Assistant Broke Out of Its Shell. Now It Has to Fight.

Will we see the first big fight to make "Her" in 2016?

Warner Bros.

If one line goes down in Google’s history from 2015, save the whole Alphabet thing, it will be the full-on pivot to mobile. Each part of the search engine was pushed and pushed to execute on mobile devices, where, Google admitted this year, a bulk of its searches now occur.

Central to that execution is Google Now, the intelligent personal assistant. The product had a landmark year, inking integrations with over 100 apps and unfurling a feature — Now on Tap — essential to Google’s mobile strategy.

Long-promised computing smarts, like voice interaction, are finally beginning to be useful. Once they are, expect them to show up more on our phones, our homes, our cars and so on. It’s a tired analogy, yes, but the movie “Her” is not far off from what tech companies imagine.

Now is Google’s emissary into this future. It’s not alone, though: Rivaling products from Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and a bevy of startups expanded this year and plan to keep going in the next.

Amid the competition, Google Now burrowed deeper into Google’s search organization, shifting over from its birthplace inside Android. That transition signals the priority mobile has in the money-making division. But it also, as Re/code reported, reveals the limitations and pratfalls of the byzantine, often political world of Google.

The Year So Far

Now is a trade-off with users: Let Google peer inside your data — your email, location, calendar, searches, travel history, etc. — and Google will gather what you need for you. It’s designed to let the phone “do the heavy lifting,” as Aparna Chennapragada, the product chief, has said.

To do that, the product has to shake off a reputation for creepiness. Getting more use cases will help. In January, Now added integration with 40 different apps, including Airbnb, Lyft and Spotify. Now feeds content from these apps, at a useful moment (theoretically), to Android owners. In April, Google announced another slate of app partners; its total is 110 as of today.

Think of this as a left flank in Google’s strategy to index the world of mobile apps, placing apps deeper into Google’s virtual assistant.

The right flank is Google inserting itself into apps. Enter Now on Tap. On the latest version of Android, smartphone owners can summon Google’s knowledge graph (a very big one indeed) within other apps with the touch of a button. If it catches on, it could solve a fundamental issue for Google — that it is relied upon less and less on phones. The product was introduced at Google’s developer conference in May but didn’t roll out until October. Last week, it unveiled two new features — flight information and related news articles — along with functionality in six new languages.

Meanwhile, Google boosted speech capabilities on mobile during the year. In July, it announced integrations of its voice command (“Okay, Google”) with a slew of apps, including Shazam and Facebook’s WhatsApp. The company is also looking to integrate some of these features into its Messenger app, which hasn’t been as widely adopted as Facebook’s Messenger app.

The Outlook for 2016

Today, Now works primarily on location — feeding information (weather, traffic) or suggestions (restaurants, hotel listings, events) to its users. If Google has its way, Now will keep on adding these integrations next year, finding ways to deliver more apps, app pages and — critically for Google — Google services based on other ways we use our phones. The product team will have to balance this expansion with the concerns of app developers, who are weary of relinquishing data to the search giant.

The team will also want to grow beyond Android, where most Now users are. This might prove difficult. Apple is paying more attention to Siri, building its capabilities alongside an intelligence layer, Proactive Assistant, akin to Google Now, and featuring it inside Apple TV. Siri has largely languished and Apple may be handicapped by its decision not to tap personal cloud data fully. Still, Siri could benefit from Apple’s usual advantage: An ability to keep iPhone owners locked in its world.

Microsoft’s Cortana is going up against Now, too. Another threat could come from Facebook, which plans to roll out its virtual assistant tool, M, inside its wildly popular Messenger app. (The Wall Street Journal reported that Google is cooking up a new messaging app that competes with Messenger and the M service. Google isn’t commenting.)

Next year, Google’s personal assistant will also elbow for room on the big platforms after smartphones, particularly the smart home and connected car. Here, Google has a tech edge over traditional manufacturers (the appliance and carmakers), but will need to outmatch Apple, with its home and car software hubs, and Amazon, with its Echo product.

Finally, there are a few startups that blossomed this year, like SoundHound and MindMeld, moving into the intelligence terrain. They feel they can outsmart the tech giants and, perhaps as critically, circumvent them.

MindMeld, which creates speech interaction tools for developers, recently inked a deal with Now partner Spotify. While Now users can conduct voice searches on Spotify, the MindMeld deal allows the streaming app to better tailor its voice experiences without moving through a looming middle man, said Tim Tuttle, the startup’s CEO.

If it is Spotify’s data, why cede it to Google? “They own all of the data that is necessary to power these intelligence systems,” Tuttle said. “No company that’s in the business of helping users find things ever wants to outsource that.”

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