Google unveils Android M, Android Pay and Google Now enhancements

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) used its opening keynote of its I/O developer conference to unveil a new, polished version of its Android mobile operating system, a new mobile payments app called Android Pay and updates to its Google Now proactive personal assistant.

Unlike last year when Google announced initiatives to push Android into smart watches, cars, TVs and more, Google executives said that the search giant is focused on refining and enhancing existing features.

Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of products, said Google has "gone back to the basics" with the latest Android update, called Android M for now, and is focused on improving the customer experience. Android M will be released in the third quarter of the year.

Android is the most dominant mobile operating system in the world; last year it captured 80.7 percent of the market and more than 1 billion Android devices were sold to end users, according to research firm Gartner.

Dave Burke, a vice president of engineering at Google, said the "central theme of M is improving the core user experience" and fixing bugs and offering improvements, like the ability to set different volume levels for alarms and audio streams.

Android Pay is Google's new mobile payments app that users can access to pay for goods in stores. Users will need to simply unlock their phone, place it in front of a Near Field Communication reader at checkout, and the app will conduct the payment after a credit or debit card has been set up for it. The app will create virtual account numbers for cards, so actual account information won't be shared during the transaction. Burke said users can also use the Android Pay app or other banking apps, since Google is working with financial institutions to connect them to Android Pay. Importantly, Android Pay will also power in-app transactions from companies that sell physical goods and services.

In February, Google acquired Softcard, the mobile payments joint venture that had been backed by Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS), and Burke said those carriers will pre-load Android Pay on their Android smartphones. The service will work in more than 700,000 retail locations in the U.S., Burke said. 

There are also several new key features in Android M. They include changes to application permissions, so that users will not be prompted when they are downloading an app to accept or deny whether apps can access certain functionalities on their phones. Instead, that list has been simplified to functions like location, camera and microphones, and the prompt about app permissions will appear when users access those features in apps for the first time on a case-by-case basis. Users will also be able to modify permissions after downloading apps. This will only apply to apps built for the Android M Software Development Kit and will not apply to older apps.

Another feature called "Chrome Custom Tabs" is designed to improve the mobile web experience within apps. The feature lets developers add webviews directly in their apps, bringing in the functionality of Chrome without forcing users to switch to the browser, Burke said. Chrome features like automatic sign-in, saved passwords and autofill will come along with this as well.

Google is also adding the ability to more seamlessly link apps together, a system Google calls "intents," so that apps can access content from each other directly instead of prompting users to choose different apps. So, for example, if a user clicks a Twitter link in an email, the Twitter app will open directly instead of the user being asked if they want to open Twitter.

Android M also brings native support for fingerprint scanning for unlocking devices and authenticating mobile payments.

Finally, Google is unveiling a new feature called "Doze" that it says will save device's battery life. By using advanced motion control technology, the feature can tell when a deice has been left untouched for an extended period of time and will then turn off many background processes, but will still let incoming notifications or high-priority chats come through. Burke said that this has extended the standby time of the Nexus 9 tablet by up to two times over Android 5.0 Lollipop.

Google is also enhancing its Google Now assistant to be smarter than before. Aparna Chennapragada, Google Now's product director, unveiled a new feature called "Now on tap" that will access Google's Knowledge Graph of more than 1 billion entries to give users answers to search queries within apps and provide them with actions they can take. As Google notes, users can "tap and hold the home button for assistance without having to leave what you're doing--whether you're in an app or on a website. For example, if a friend emails you about seeing the new movie Tomorrowland, you can invoke Google Now without leaving your app, to quickly see the ratings, watch a trailer, or even buy tickets--then get right back to what you were doing."

When users tap and hold the home button, Google gives users the options that are a best guess of what might be helpful in that moment. Users can also say "OK Google" from any screen and any app to get answers; so if they are listening to a song on Spotify, users can ask "Who is the lead signer?" and get an answer. If users receive a text message about a restaurant reservation at a specific restaurant, they can use Now on tap to open OpenTable and make a reservation at that restaurant. "We'll share a lot more details over the next few months," Chennapragada said.

According to a 9to5 Mac report, Apple will soon launch a new iOS enhancement called "Proactive," which will leverage Siri, iPhone contacts, calendars, Apple's Passbook app and third-party apps to create a competitor to Google Now. According to the report, which cited unnamed sources, Proactive will automatically provide timely information based on a person's data and device usage patterns, but will respect the user's privacy preferences.

For more:
- see this The Verge live blog

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