The next version of Google's (GOOG 0.81%) (GOOGL 0.69%) mobile operating system will make its debut next week. Android 6.0 Marshmallow includes a number of major improvements, some of which could have a direct effect on Google's services and the popularity of the Android platform.
Greater Google search integration
Android Marshmallow's greatest feature may be Now on Tap, the next evolution of its predictive digital personal assistant Google Now. Now on Tap will give Android owners the ability to analyze and search their smartphone's screen contextually in real time. If a song is currently playing, simply saying "OK Google. Who's the main singer?" will return an answer without leaving the current screen. Double tapping the home button also activates Now on Tap. It can scan an email or text message conversation and return relevant information like movie reviews, restaurants, and points of interest.
Now on Tap is a unique feature, and it if it's well-received, it could give Android an advantage over rival platforms. It could also result in more search traffic, benefiting Google's core business.
Making Android more user friendly
Android Marshmallow also includes a number of features that, in total, should make Android smartphones easier and more pleasant to use.
To copy or paste text in Android now, you must highlight the text, then move your finger to the top of the screen and click the appropriate button. Sounds simple enough, but it can be unpleasant when the device sports a massive display. Android Marshmallow moves the copy and paste buttons, placing them directly above the highlighted text and making them easier to access.
App linking is another issue that Android Marshmallow should help fix. Right now, if you click a link in Android, it will often prompt you with a dialogue box asking how'd you like to open it. Say the link is embedded in an email, and it goes to someone's social media profile. Clicking that link will prompt Android to ask for a selection -- should the link be opened with an app or with the browser? It can be confusing and disconcerting for some users, and it's less than ideal. Android Marshmallow includes a feature that allows developers to skip the dialogue box, and send users directly to the appropriate app.
Android home screens will now rotate into the landscape position. Previously, they were permanently locked in portrait mode, regardless of the phone's position. The dialer app now includes visual voice mail -- the ability to see and select voice mail messages as if they were text messages.
Android Marshmallow also supports a variety of new hardware features, including USB Type-C and fingerprint scanners. USB Type-C offers vast improvements over its predecessor: it's reversible and far more capable. It's used on the new MacBook and the latest Chromebook Pixel, and it seems likely to emerge as the USB standard going forward. Some Android vendors have been offering fingerprint scanners for years, but the operating system itself never supported them. Now, Android owners will be able to use their fingerprints in apps, and Android vendors that offer fingerprint scanners won't have to design their own software.
Doze is an Android Marshmallow feature that should improve battery life. It monitors how the device is being used, and adjusts accordingly. If it's laying flat for several hours, Android will automatically pause background apps to improve battery life.
Android Marshmallow gives users greater control over their apps, letting them accept or reject individual app permissions -- you can grant an app access to your camera but not your microphone, for example. Apps can automatically backup user data to Google Drive, helping to prevent data loss.
Local storage is also dramatically improved, as microSD cards can now be treated as internal storage. Android has supported microSD cards from the beginning, but their use has been limited, largely restricted to storing files like photos and music tracks. By treating it like internal storage, more room will be available for apps. Prospective Android buyers will be able to save money by purchasing phones with less internal storage, then upgrading them with cheaper SD cards.
October, but not really
While Android Marshmallow will technically make its debut this month, it will be quite some time before the majority of Android users can see its benefits. Just 21% of current Android users are on the latest version, Lollipop, and that was released last fall. Still, Android Marshmallow will soon begin filtering its way through the installed base, and shipping on new phones. Many of these new features are highly useful, and should make the Android platform more compelling in the months and years ahead.