Android M: small refinements with a huge impact

The future of Android is Now on Tap

Last year, Google introduced an elegant, sophisticated operating system with an all-new design that was compatible with everything from phones to watches to cars to TVs. This year, with Android M, it’s refining it.

The year-over-year cycle of innovation followed by refinement isn’t new to anyone familiar with tech, but increasingly it’s tough to say just what Google’s next refinements ought to be. There’s the usual checkboxes: improve battery life, clean up some settings, buff out the rough spots. After that, you expect a headline, a brand new service or feature — like, say, an improved mobile payment system. Small or large, we’ve come to expect these annual upgrades.

This year’s M update appears small, but it’s actually fairly large. It comes down to answering this question: how do you make a smartphone do more without making it more confusing?

Google’s answer is to make it smarter.

The biggest and most important development in Android M is the introduction of "Now on Tap." It’s an evolution of Google Now, which extended Google Search into a service that automatically guessed what information you wanted to know. Swipe up on the home button, and you see a series of (hopefully) relevant information cards. Now, Android M is bringing that experience to every single app on your phone.

In the three years since Now was first introduced, Google has extended the data sources it pulls from. As a result, Now has gotten smarter, using contexts like your location, calendar, inbox, recent searches, and other "ambient" data to better guess what you want to know.

Android M offers Now another data source: hold down the home button in any app and Android will read the screen and use the information to create relevant Now cards. Aparna Chennapragada, director of product engineering at Google, walked me through the process. "Think of this as smart copy and paste," she said. Instead of copying the info you want, opening another app, and pasting it in, just hit the home button and trust Now to do the rest.

For Sundar Pichai, extending Google Now into apps is simply part of Google's "core mission statement, which is to organize users' information." He points out that mobile requires faster answers with less work, so Google wants to leverage its ability to use machine learning to understand context and apply it everywhere. "When we think about organizing the world's information in the context of mobile," he says, "people are trying to get stuff done and ... want it to be easier. So we need to go a step further and be assistive where we can." Now on Tap is precisely that assistance.

The demos Chennapragada showed me were compelling. In a WhatsApp chat that mentioned picking up the dry cleaning and going to a restaurant, holding down the home button popped up cards that let you automatically add a reminder for the laundry and an info card for the restaurant, complete with reviews and a map.

It works with essentially any app that displays text on screen (and, in the future, should also be able to recognize landmarks and images). You can also initiate the program by either holding down the home button or by saying "Ok Google," and asking contextually aware questions about what you’re currently doing. Say you’re listening to music — you can ask Google to look up who the lead singer of the band is. And it works. It’s really impressive.

Now Google can learn about the stuff I’m doing inside non-Google apps

It’s also a little scary. Using my search history, Android location history, Gmail account, calendar, and god knows what else, Google already knows an unimaginable amount of information about me. Now it can learn about the stuff I’m doing inside the non-Google apps I’m using on my phone. I don’t mind entering text into a search box about a restaurant, but that is a discrete disclosure with limited info. Google probably doesn’t know who I’m talking to about said restaurant — but with Now on Tap, it does.

There are at least a few constraints in place. First of all, it’s an opt-in service, just like Google Now. Secondly, Chennapragada says it only searches for information when you ask for it; it’s not constantly scanning what you’re doing. Last but certainly not least, she says that "we don’t store the data. We discard the data."

Google is most at home on the web — that’s where the company got its start, and where it still functions best. But, it’s impossible to ignore that we’re increasingly living our online lives inside apps. Is Now on Tap a blatant effort to help Google fill a large and growing digital data blind spot — namely all the information locked inside apps? "Look, there’s a huge wealth of information in apps and it’s not just the size of information, it’s actually different kinds of information," Chennapragada says. But she cites a more user-centric motivation for the feature, brushing aside those larger strategic concerns: "The way we’ve been actually thinking about it is: how do we understand apps so that we can actually make them accessible to users?"

Among the things that Now on Tap can surface are direct, deep links into apps instead of web pages or Google services. If Google thinks it sees a restaurant name, for example, it will provide icons for apps like Yelp or OpenTable, so you can jump right to making a reservation. Chennapragada says that enough app developers have made their data searchable to add up to 30 million links in Google’s index.

Now on Tap is based on an Android-platform level service called the "Assist API," which means that in theory, any app developer can create a service that makes use of the data displayed on the screen. It’s Android that reads the screen, not Google, though for most users the data will obviously go to the search giant. But the fact that Google chose to keep its own payment service abstracted one level away from the core OS is a sure sign that it’s thinking about China and making accommodations for manufacturers to develop similar services over there. On the topic of China, Pichai didn't indicate any major strategy shift in the offing, but hinted that Google is still thinking about it: "We would love to serve Chinese users with Google services as well, obviously. I think it will be a privilege to do that, but we need to be thoughtful in how we do it. We are open to newer approaches. We'll have to wait and see."

But for the rest of the world, Now on Tap will be a very "Googley" product, taking full advantage of Google’s cloud computing services like the Knowledge Graph, making increasingly good guesses about what you want to know, and probably encouraging more app makers to make the data inside their ecosystems available for search indexing. It’s an ambitious mission — the sort of thing that only Google would be able to pull off, and maybe only Google would even try in the first place.

Looking for information in the desktop era, Chennapragada says, was defined by the search box. But in the mobile age, that small, white text box appears increasingly archaic. If Now on Tap is a sign of things to come, the conceptual differences between your phone and the information it accesses will gradually erode. Your phone isn’t just a thing that can access the internet, it’s increasingly becoming a thing that is a part of the internet.

Google Android

Hiroshi Lockheimer, VP of engineering for Android, puts it in simpler terms: "What we’re focused on with M is really the core user experience and improving that." ("M," by the way, is how everyone refers to the next version of Android — nobody there will cop to knowing what dessert it will be named after.)

When Lockheimer talks about the "core" user experience, he’s clearly talking about the kinds of refinements we’ve come to expect. "We’re really going to start harvesting all the effort we put in [to Android Lollipop]," he says.

A prime example is Google’s approach to app permissions. Until now, if you wanted to install an app from the Google Play Store, you had to accept a giant stack of often arcane and scary-sounding things before you could even download the app. With M, a developer will be able to ask you if you want to grant it access to specific features like, say, the camera. It’s an approach similar to Apple’s iOS, and it’s the sort of thing Google should have adopted long ago. "We think it’s important that app developers are able to ask for permissions to do things in context," says Lockheimer.

Google’s developer preview indicates that users can can get really granular on those permissions — turning off individual functions in individual apps, and monitoring which apps have access to any given system function.

There are lots of other small tweaks like that throughout Android M: the app drawer has big letters to aid navigation; recently accessed apps float to the top of the drawer; you can properly silence your phone again; and cut-and-paste has once again been tweaked. My favorite small refinement is in the share menu. Now, when you tap the share button you’ll see contacts up top: so if you happen to use WhatsApp to send links to a particular person, you can do that directly instead of choosing WhatsApp first and then hunting for that person.

Both Now on Tap and the share menu tweak share a common theme: Android is continuously guessing what you want, and giving it to you without asking. Increasingly, Google is growing more confident in its ability to guess correctly. That confidence is expressed in another feature in Android M, called "Doze."

Doze is a new kind of aggressive battery management algorithm — new for Android, anyway. Android will take a look at a variety of signals that indicate whether or not you’re actively using your device. If it detects your tablet sitting unused on the coffee table all day, it will turn off certain power-hungry apps and even deny them networking abilities. If Google gets Doze right, users will never know it’s there. "They shouldn’t even have to think about that," Lockheimer says, "it should just work."

Apple has long taken a similar approach inside iOS. Apps can run in the background on the iPhone, but only within strictly defined policies from the OS that limit their capabilities and their access to data. Google is coming to a similar solution but from an entirely different direction. Instead of setting those policies explicitly, it will algorithmically and automatically apply them depending on how "fresh" it thinks you need your data to be.

Google refused to estimate how much Doze will improve battery life, but Lockheimer says that the company has "internal targets" that are "pretty audacious."

The last big Android feature that Google is trotting for I/O is Android Pay. It’s actually not an Android M feature, but instead available via the Google Play store to any Android phone with 4.4 Kit Kat or higher and an NFC chip. Product Manager Pali Bhat says that "seven of 10 [Android] phones in the United States are now ready for Android Pay."

The history of mobile payments — especially on Android — is almost unimaginably complicated. It involved different technologies, competing corporate interests, product launches, blocked apps, broken partnerships, and generalized skullduggery. It’s the story of Google Wallet, which was announced four years ago and has utterly failed to gain traction through management changes and product pivots, having been rejected by cell phone carriers who served as gatekeepers for what software could be preinstalled on the phones that used their networks.

By comparison, the story of Android Pay is remarkably simple: Google bought a company called Softcard, made nice with the carriers, and rebranded. People understand "Apple Pay" to mean "paying with your phone," so using "Android Pay" is an easy analog.

Android Pay isn’t a one-for-one replacement for Google Wallet, which in addition to mobile payments also handles things like peer-to-peer payments and online checkout. But Android Pay is a catch-all for the Android platform pieces necessary to support it, including host card emulation, tokenization, and a bunch of technologies Google calls "Safety Net" that monitor the device to see if it’s been compromised. Google is also adding support for fingerprint readers to Android, so manufacturers like Samsung or HTC don’t have to do it themselves.

"We absolutely don’t sell that data and we have no plans to use [it] for advertising or anything like that," says Lockheimer. Bhat notes that there are cases in which Google will collect transaction data — but the company will limit that data use to displaying recent transactions. A Google spokesperson told me that it won’t discuss the details of who gets a cut of the transaction fees that are usually paid to banks and credit card providers. (Apple reportedly gets as much as 0.15 percent.)

In terms of its basic operation, Android Pay has few surprises. You’ll need to set up a lock on your phone; when your phone is unlocked, you just tap and pay. Bhat tells me that Android Pay will automatically figure out how often you need to re-enter your passcode if it’s been unlocked for an extended period of time. Softcard technology gives Google the ability to transmit both loyalty cards and payment with a single tap, and tokenization means that your actual credit card appears inside the app, just as with Apple Pay. It will also work with some in-app purchasing.

But the problem with Google Wallet was never how it worked — it was where it worked. It was never on enough phones or supported in enough stores to make an impact. With roughly 700,000 vendors already signed up to accept Android Pay, adoption this time around should be less of a hurdle.

Google Doze

Over the course of the weeks leading up to I/O, Google has framed its Android M innovations in general terms: "improving the core customer experience" and "really focusing on product excellence."

But the real story here is far more concrete than the company is letting on: Google wants to make your phone smarter in order to give it a better shot at doing just what you want it to do. That extends to battery life when it shuts down apps you’re not using. It extends to Pay when it uses "a thousand-plus signals" to know whether a transaction is legitimate or not. It even extends to the Share menu when it saves you three or four taps.

But more than anything else, Google is extending its computer intelligence to apps through Now on Tap. The ability to automatically get and use information you see inside an app begins to break the silos each one has been quietly building. Once you break the barriers between apps, mobile computing takes on a whole new silhouette.

Think of the amazing (and, yes, creepy) things that happen when you put words into a Google search box. Now put your damn phone in there and imagine what might happen. We’ll find out this fall, when Android M exits its developer preview and starts shipping on phones.

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