The next version of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) Android operating system will add a fairly radical feature, one that could give Android-powered smartphones a competitive advantage over Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone.
Google Now takes a big step forward
This feature, known as Now on Tap, is the next step in the evolution of Google Now, Google's digital personal assistant. Google Now is already a powerful service in its own right, but on Tap should increase its value dramatically.
With on Tap, Google Now will be able to analyze the information currently displayed on a user's smartphone screen. For example, Google Now will be able to field questions about a song that's currently playing: Rather than opening the Google app, searching for the band and then searching for the singer, users will be able to simply ask Google Now "Who's the lead singer?"
Google Now on Tap will integrate with other aspects of the phone, including email and messaging. Google Now will be able to search a message for points of interest, then offer up information relevant to the discussion (reviews of a restaurant, information on a movie, prompts to set a reminder for an upcoming event).
Google Now on Tap is slated to arrive with Android M, the next version of Google's mobile operating system. Android M has not received a firm release date yet, but if Google's past releases are any indication, it seems likely to make its debut sometime this fall.
Apple's better Spotlight
If Google Now on Tap proves to be as useful as it appears, it could cost Apple some future iPhone sales. Google has been diligent about bringing nearly all of its services to Apple's iPhone (including Google Now itself). However, given the level of integration it appears to require, Now on Tap could be difficult, if not totally impossible, to offer to iOS users.
Admittedly, Apple will soon offer its own quasi-alternative in the form of enhanced Spotlight search. Unveiled at its Worldwide Developers Conference last month, and slated to arrive with iOS 9 later this year, iPhone users will soon be able to search their handsets for information buried within apps. It isn't a true search engine -- far from it -- but Spotlight search will make it easier for users to dig up relevant information at a moment's notice. Searching "chicken," for example, could surface chicken-based recipes stored within a food app.
That could certainly save iPhone users valuable time, and enhance the overall experience, but it pales in comparison to what Google Now could eventually offer to owners of Android handsets.
Android's first must-have feature?
Of course, it remains to be seen if Google Now on Tap will become the next must-have feature, or be discarded as a simple gimmick. Privacy concerns could limit its adoption -- The Wall Street Journal, reacting to Now on Tap's announcement, labeled it "creepy."
Moreover, most Android users won't be able to use on Tap for months, if not years. Google's Android operating system is notoriously fragmented -- although it was released more than seven months ago, only 12% of Android handsets are running the latest version of Android, Android Lollipop. Android Jelly Bean, originally released in 2013, is more than twice as popular. And to this day, carriers continue to sell Android handsets running older versions of the operating system. The same is likely to be true for Android M.
But if on Tap is a success, it could give Android its first major, unique feature. Since the beginning, Google's Android operating system has offered users a deeper level of customization, but some of these features (third-party keyboards) have to come to iOS; others -- like contextual lock screens -- have yet to find true mainstream success.
If Now on Tap receives a strong reception, it will be an obvious win for Google, expanding its search queries and drawing in mobile users. For Apple, the opposite is true -- it could help reverse recent trends and sway smartphone buyers to Android. With the bulk of Apple's revenue and profit coming from the iPhone, this poses an obvious threat to its stock.
Certainly, it's the most intriguing Android feature to emerge in years, and it's one investors should watch closely going into Android M's launch.