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Google Now gets phone makeover

Fourth update puts app front and center on users' smartphones

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Google is rolling out some enhancements to Google Now, a mobile app that gives Android users personalised information on the fly. The changes could help make the tool a bigger part of people's daily lives.

The updates put the app front and center on mobile devices. Previously, users had to swipe upward on their smartphone screen to access Google Now, which works like a personal assistant by automatically generating "cards" with information based on a user's location and activities.

The update brings those cards to the device's home or lock screen so users don't have to open the app to see them, making Google Now function like a "widget," Google said.

The cards give people in-the-moment information, related to whatever they might be doing at the time. That might include updated driving directions based on traffic conditions, or information about a flight delay or the latest score in a football game.

The update puts three Google Now cards on the device's home screen, and people can assign different levels of importance to different cards. So a change in traffic patterns might trump, say, a rise in a company's stock price, pushing that information to the top of a person's phone while hiding the stock quote.

Google Now was last updated in December to scan people's Gmail inbox for boarding passes and suggest places to visit while traveling, among other changes. Those new functions were seen as rivals to the Passbook program in Apple's iOS, which pulls boarding documents and other passes together into one place on the iPhone.

But the Google Now update, available for devices running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean or higher, is meant to give users even "more of the information you need, at just the right time," Google product management director Baris Gultekin said Wednesday in a blog post.

"Today, we're making Google Now even more useful by integrating new partners and making all your information even easier to access," he said. The new partners include movie sites Rotten Tomatoes and Fandango, and the Zillow real estate database.

With Fandango, for instance, the widget could remind a person when to leave for a movie theater, and pull up their tickets on arrival, Google said. And with Zillow, Google Now can bring up nearby real estate listings from its database and give additional information about the listing when the person is inside, say, the kitchen at the open house, the blog post said.

Wednesday's changes are the fourth update to Google Now since it launched last June, the company said.

"When Google Now first launched last summer, we promised it was just the beginning, and it would continue to get better at delivering you more of the information you need, before you even ask," Google's Gultekin said in the blog post.



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