Google Keep: The Second Coming Of Android's Voice Actions

Last week, Google unveiled Keep, a note-taking service similar to, but much more limited than, established apps like Evernote and Apple's Notes. But there's another service to which Google Keep bears an uncanny resemblance: Voice Actions, an Android feature Google launched more than two-and-a-half years ago, only to see it almost completely eclipsed by Apple's Siri.

It's no wonder, then, that Google Keep is essentially Voice Actions with a fresh coat of paint. Although Keep improves upon Voice Actions in a few ways, there's a great degree of overlap between the two. And, in some cases, Voice Actions is simply better.

As a note-taking and reminder app, Keep takes aim at both Evernote and Apple's Notes. But it's worth, er, noting, that each major smartphone platform now has its own dedicated note-taking app: Google Keep, Apple's Notes, and OneNote for Windows Phone. And, of course, there are a number of other competitors.

Google Keep's functionality really boils down to just three features: quick notes, checklists, and photos. Keep can also transcribe (and maintain recordings of) notes that you input via voice, which Android already does for SMS messages, Twitter tweets, Facebook posts, and a number of other apps within Android. Google Keep may have inspired multi-page reviews, but you should pick up the basics within minutes. 

How Voice Actions Beats Keep

With the right command words, however, Voice Actions can do many of the same things, albeit in a slightly different format. With Keep, you must open Keep, and then choose one of the four actions (or enter a Quick Note at the top). Choosing a Note allows you to select a title, enter the note, and save. With Voice Actions, just trigger the mic, say "Note to self," and the note. Android will transcribe it while you watch, pause for a split second for your review, and then announce, "Saving note" - which it then emails to your Gmail for later review.

Likewise, saying "Remind me to go the dentist at 3" with Voice Actions creates a Google Calendar event for 3 PM, identifying the location as "the dentist". That's miles ahead of Keep, which merely creates a note to that effect. 

Keep's one advantage seems to be the checklist, which creates a to-do list that you can check off as you accomplish it. Voice Actions has nothing comparable. (It could; imagine a list triggered by "to do": "To do: go to the store, buy milk, phone grandma.") What I'd like to see in Keep is a checklist that could be shared with someone else in real time, so that by the time I arrived at the store I knew exactly what my wife wanted me to buy.

Why Voice Actions Didn't Keep

Google has always struck as me as a for-profit university of sorts, with the broadest of mission statements: "Go forth and collect data, which you shall then sell ads against." Keep either seems be a recognition that Google's earlier efforts with Voice Actions failed to generate the attention they deserved - or, equally likely, that another of Google's product teams merely reinvented the wheel.

Call it what you will — the tyranny of the masses, entropy, or just a growing fascination with ephemera — the truth of the matter is that as more and more free and low-cost applications are hurled at consumers, there is less and less time to become familiar with The Next Big Thing before it, too, is superseded. Voice Actions is a solid, fundamental piece of Google tech, but it simply isn't as integral to the Android experience as say, Apple's Siri is to that of the iPhone.

If this is true, then perhaps Keep will incorporate other Google technologies which have been somewhat forgotten: image recognition (Google Goggles by another name), collaboration (Google Apps, anyone?), or shared location (Google Latitude). 

Stick around long enough in Silicon Valley, and someone will come up with a new twist on an old idea. Even, sometimes, within the same company.