Google's Now on Tap faces pressure from Microsoft's Bing and internal departures

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is facing more pressure in search, and not just because Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) beat it to the punch and late last week updated its Bing search app for Android that mimics many of the features of Google's forthcoming Now on Tap feature. Both Google's and Microsoft's efforts aim to give users information about people and places and let them take actions based on the context of what they are viewing in mobile apps. According to a Re/code report, which cited unnamed sources familiar with the situation, much of the original team that built Google Now has left the search giant.   

The Re/code report said that much of the team behind the Now personal assistant had departed by the time Google showed off Now on Tap in late May as part of its unveiling of Android M, now called "Marshmallow," which will be released this fall.

Some left because they were frustrated that Google had moved Now from Android into the larger search business and because Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of products and ascendant CEO, did not prioritize it as much as CEO Larry Page. Pichai is taking over as CEO of the Google business following Google's decision to reorganize itself and split out its businesses under a parent company called Alphabet, which will be led by Page.

Google Now, which provides notifications and recommendations based on a user's calendar, location and routines and search history, was launched in 2012 and championed by Page as a touchstone of the company's future, Re/code notes. However, over time Page spent less time talking about Now and more time focusing on so-called "moon shots," or long-term experiments, the report said, seeding the ground for the transition to the company's new Alphabet structure.  

As mobile search began to dominate and Google's search business lost steam due to lower payments it gets for mobile search, Amit Singhal, the executive who leads the search busies, requested last year that Now move from Android into his division, the report said. That caused tension with the Now team who felt it would be better to keep the service tied to Android.

However, Pichai approved the switch, the report said, as he sought to balance giving information to users with Google's business imperatives. He also positioned Now as a lower priority than Android and Chrome, the report said.

Google still has high hopes for Now. "We're seeing strong usage and very positive feedback," a Google spokesperson told Re/code. "And we're continuing to make Google Now work even better -- continuing to add dozens of new cards, getting Now on Tap ready for release, improving our predictive technology, and iterating on the design and user experience."

Google declined to comment on how many people use Now per month, but Re/code reported that it has more than 100 million. Two of the engineers who created Now left the company in March, the report said, and several others left around the same time, leaving only one of the founding team at Google.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is excited about its updates to Bing. As Wired notes, users can now swipe up from the Home button on their Android phone from within any app and get Bing search results related to what they are viewing, which could be anything from simple image search results to icons that direct you to relevant apps. Users can choose whether to have that gesture work with Bing or Google Now. Bing taps into its knowledge and actions graph, with more than a billion distinct entities, over 21 billion facts about those entities and over 5 billion relationships between them, according to Wired.

Ryan Gavin, general manager for search, cloud and content at Microsoft, acknowledged the similarities to Now on Tap. "The Bing Android app, we really did it to showcase this experience of the knowledge and action graph showing up in the context of what you're working on," he told Wired. "It's not the endgame."

The ultimate goal is much larger. "That's kind of first base," Gavin said of the "overlay experiences" the updated Bing app and Google's upcoming Android Marshmallow release provide. "They're good and they're fine, but where it gets really powerful is when that experience can show up in the context of the app I'm in, where I don't even have to think about holding down the home button, or some additional overlay to bring on top."

Microsoft wants to open up its knowledge and actions API to let developers to build their own contextual moments into their apps, instead of data that needs to be summoned via Google's algorithms.

"One's a very open approach," Gavin told Re/code. "And the other is asking developers to register their app data with Google."

Aparna Chennapragada, the product lead on Now starting this year, told Re/code last month that Now on Tap will solve app developers' longstanding issue with app discovery. Google has indexed around 50 billion links within apps, according to Re/code, and in April, it started listing install links to apps deemed relevant in search. Those indexed apps will be included in Now on Tap, and Google aims to link users to apps whenever they signal a need for them, though that could start a new push among developers to be the apps that get linked to for certain actions.

"It's one of the key pieces of brokering that Google can do," Chennapragada added. "How do you match the right piece of content? That's the third piece that we're building out."

For more:
- see this Re/code article
- see this Wired article

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