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Microsoft Just Copied One of Google's Most Exciting New Android Features

By Sam Mattera - Sep 2, 2015 at 9:16PM

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Bing's snapshots on tap arrives ahead of Now on Tap's launch.

Microsoft's (MSFT -0.23%) Bing app just got a lot better.

Owners of handsets powered by Google's (GOOG -1.29%) (GOOGL -1.34%) Android operating system can now take advantage of "snapshots on tap," a new Bing feature that allows Microsoft's search engine to scan a user's smartphone screen and provide relevant data about items on the screen.

Snapshots on tap functions almost identically to Now on Tap, one of the more exciting features coming in the next version of Android. Snapshots on tap could provide some competition to Google's own service, and give Microsoft greater share of the search market.

Making search better
As their similar names might imply, snapshots on tap and Now on Tap function almost identically. In either case, a user can automatically run a search query on whatever they happen to be looking at on their phone at any given time.

In a video demonstrating its potential, Microsoft provides the example of a viewer watching the trailer to Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation in the YouTube app. By swiping up from the bottom of the screen, an Android handset owner with the Bing app installed can trigger the snapshots on tap function, receiving a list of related, pertinent data -- the film's IMDB page and a link to purchase tickets (among other things).

The next version of Google's Android operating system, Android Marshmallow, includes such functionality, but will utilize Google's search engine rather than Bing's. Google showcased Now on Tap as one of Marshmallow's defining features back in May at its annual I/O conference.

Android Marshmallow should arrive later this fall, first on Google's own Nexus devices, and eventually, on handsets from its many hardware partners. 

Search is becoming more important to Microsoft
Owners of those handsets will have the option to replace Google with Bing if they so choose, but as a default feature, Now on Tap should have the advantage. Of course, many Android users are unlikely to receive the Android Marshmallow update for several years, if at all. According to Google's own data, roughly one-third of Android users are using Android Jellybean, the version of the operating system Google released in 2012.

Those without Android Marshmallow could turn to Bing for the functionality. At the same time, the very existence of snapshots on tap highlights the increasing importance of search to Microsoft.

Bing has often been derided by Microsoft investors. To date, it's cost Microsoft billions -- in 2011, it burned the Windows maker for around $1 billion per quarter. But the situation has changed, and the business is finally approaching profitability.

In fact, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella expects Bing to achieve profitability within the coming fiscal year. That could come from higher search volume, brought on by increased engagement.

Microsoft's Windows 10 operating system includes heavy integration with Bing. Cortana, Microsoft's digital personal assistant, is built directly into the taskbar, and relies on Bing to deliver search results. Microsoft has brought Cortana to Android in the form of an app. Users must go through the trouble of downloading it and setting it up, but if they do, Cortana -- in addition to snapshots on tap -- could result in more Android users searching with Bing.

Given its lack of profits, Microsoft investors may not have put much emphasis on Bing in the past, but given its increasing importance to the company, updates to its search engine could prove quite significant.

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