Google's 'Now on Tap' is Android's next killer feature -- if it works

Already leagues ahead of Apple's Siri in natural-language recognition, Google Now's expanded role in Android M could make it the most valuable feature.

Google's Now on Tap for Android M knows what you're looking at, and guesses what you want to know next. James Martin/CNET

Google's new Google Now feature is the single most exciting part of the Android M operating system update. Called Now on Tap, this active little helper branch of Google Now has the right blueprint to catapult Google's personal assistant far past Apple's Siri.

It comes down now to how well Google engineers can code the thing to anticipate your needs by the time Android M comes to users several months down the line.

What's 'Now on Tap'?

Now on Tap is built to be a mind reader of sorts, a companion that gazes at your device screens right along with you using its digital eyes, constantly collecting ancillary information about the emails you're reading, the stories you're reading, the music you're listening to, and even the route you're driving.

Google, which launched Google Now's Now on Tap at its annual Google I/O conference in San Francisco, proffered some sophisticated scenarios, like Now on Tap suggesting gas stations as you drive the rental car back to the airport (Google Now already suggests when to leave to make appointments, and tracks your upcoming flights).

In other instances, it can flag action items in your email (say, hand you info on a restaurant you mentioned, or prompt you to order dinner items through an app), play you some music, and help hook you up with a car service and weather report when you step off the plane somewhere new. (Check out the slideshow below for even more scenarios.)

Why it rocks

  • On-demand: Like a proper assistant (in the traditional sense), Now on Tap appears at your elbow in a flash, without ever being in your face. You call it up when you want it, by long-pressing the device home button. (Note that some device manufacturers could change the action that calls up Now on Tap).

  • Shortcuts when you need them: Google Now already hands you useful information -- like reminders to leave for an appointment -- and lets you do some things you think of yourself, like setting reminders. Now on Tap makes this even easier by surfacing a few things that are potentially right for the moment, based on what you're doing or likely thinking about. If it isn't right, ignore it.

  • Context-aware searches: Finally! How many times have you wished for your phone to be smart enough to figure out what you're doing? If you're reading a story online, Now on Tap should bring up several ways to share that link. Google Search should likewise clue in, making your search terms shorter and more direct.

  • Improves already terrific speech recognition: Google's work on its natural-language database means that Google Now search (and Now on Tap search) should be even more accurate than before. For the record, I'm impressed with how accurate Google Now is in correctly identifying my voice searches.

What could go wrong

  • Wrong context: We still don't know how adept Now on Tap is at anticipating real life needs. It could misinterpret that email text, or wrongly guess what I want to do when I land in a new city ("Stop trying to get me a cab, Google -- I already have a ride. Sheesh!")

  • Pushing partner apps and services you don't actually use: In its presentation, Google highlighted Uber and Instacart, two services I have used. Hopefully, it's smart enough to surface apps and services you like. (Google told CNET "any app that's relevant to your context can show up as long as they are indexed by Google.")

  • Too few suggestions: You're on your phone killing some time. Now on Tap suggests a music app and a game you like to play. Will it also suggest the thing you decide you really want, which is watching music videos or calling your friend?
Now on Tap scans your email for context. Photo by James Martin/CNET

  • It can't really read minds: Remember that find-you-a-gas-station scenario? Well, maybe Now on Tap takes you to one that's on the wrong side of the road and making two U-turns is a huge pain in the butt. Or maybe it sends you to 76 when you only fill up at Shell. However it shakes out, getting suggestions you can't actually use is more irritating than getting nothing at all.

  • It won't learn: Now on Tap is still programmed by people, but if it learns your habits and adapts over time, it's more likely to live up to its valuable promise.

  • Privacy concerns: Google already "knows" so much about us, that it occasionally gets downright creepy with Gmail suggestions and other invasive "help." Now On Tap seems like fertile ground for Google to extend its tentacles even further -- convenient, yes, but a dearth of real privacy safeguards could keep users away.

Better than Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana

For me, Google's Now on Tap already tops Siri and Cortana (and even Amazon's Alexa, too) without even trying. That's because Google is far and away best at the two things I care most about: accurate search recognition and results, and the predictive stuff, which is just cake icing.

Siri, Cortana, and Google Now all set reminders, but only Google will tell you when a package has arrived. CNET

Sure, they each have their strong suits (Cortana is better at follow-up questions. Siri started it all, and is rumored to get Google Now-like features of its own.) Google Now is also much drier and more robotic, clearly a database tool rather than a humanized "assistant."

Care about that if you like. I care about getting things done quickly and correctly (without having to repeat myself three times.)

CNET will thoroughly test Now on Tap when Google opens it up to the public, but until then, I have high hopes that Android's most identifying feature will continue to make the OS shine.

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