Smartphones keep getting better. That's a fact. They get nicer displays, cameras that put point-and-shoots to shame and, hopefully, better battery life.
But what about smartphones getting smarter? On the software side, companies like Apple and Google have been trying to make the smartphone experience much more intuitive — Apple with proactive Siri suggestions in iOS 9, and now Google with something called "Now on Tap" in Android Marshmallow.
We've seen Now on Tap before. Google first showed it off at its annual developers conference this past May, and we did a deep dive into Google's plans for Marshmallow then (codenamed "M" at the time). Since the spring, Google has made impressive strides in actually bringing Now on Tap to life.
Now on Tap officially launches today
It officially launches today as part of the release of Android Marshmallow. It's rolling out to Nexus phones and tablets first, and will become available to other Android devices in the coming weeks.
The Now on Tap feature is part of Google Now, something that Google launched a few years ago as a kind of intelligent assistant to Android phone users. Have a bunch of meetings lined up, or a long drive ahead of you? Google Now will automatically tell you what time you need to leave in order to beat traffic, where your next meeting is, how to get there, and so on. It's an opt-in feature — some people are, understandably, a little freaked out at the notion of Google having access to so much of their personal data — but in my experience, it does make the Android experience more powerful.
Now on Tap takes that even further. The idea is that you can get more information and take action from directly within an application. You no longer have to leave one app to run a search in another, or to use a mobile web browser. The most interesting part of Now on Tap might be that Google is actually giving you a way to eschew organic search; other options are right there for you.
In the hour-long demo I had with Now on Tap last week, I was able to go from someone's Instagram page to their Twitter page, and from a Viber message about going to see a band to that band's music, without having to "leave" the app or run a new search.
Here's another example: During the demo I opened a message in Facebook Messenger suggesting an outing to see The Martian. When I pressed and held down the home button, Now on Tap showed me a myriad of information options. Did I want to go to the IMDb page? Watch the trailer on YouTube? Or just go to Chrome and read more about it? What was more impressive (or creepy, depending on how you view it) is that Now on Tap knew that I was looking for information about the movie — not the book. But, in case I did want to know more about the book, I could run a Google voice search from within the app and ask who wrote The Martian.
Now on Tap knew that I was looking for information about the movie — not the book
Aparna Chennapragada, who leads up Google Now, says stuff like that is due to improved natural language processing in Google Now. Google sees the word "see" and knows the context of the query — in this case, that it's referring to a movie. It's also what enables Now on Tap to make calendar appointment suggestions directly, too.
But it's not a totally seamless experience yet, by any means. Certain apps, like Twitter, keep you trapped in the app after using Now on Tap to get there, so when you hit the back button you stay within the app rather than going back to your original Now on Tap query.
And in some cases, the app page you're on might not have enough information to lead to robust Now on Tap results. For example, I googled myself (who doesn't) using Chrome, went to a Verge story I recently wrote and from there pressed Now on Tap. The result? An option to search for Chromecast (the story was about Chromecast, ironically enough), but no options to, say, watch a Verge video on YouTube.
After using it briefly, it's easy to see the potential for other use cases, like commerce. If someone can go from a restaurant page directly to an Open Table booking right now using Now on Tap, or from a movie trailer to the Fandango app, it doesn't seem unfeasible that Now on Tap would eventually take you to more purchasing options.