This spring, Google showed the world a radical plan to reshape how we use our phones. A new feature called Now on Tap would surface relevant information within whatever app you happen to have open, sourced from the Web and other apps. It’s a near-magical way for users to avoid tedious app switching, one with profound consequences for developers and the Android ecosystem. The only wrinkle in Google’s grand vision? Microsoft has beaten them to the punch.
Not only that, but Microsoft has encroached on Google’s turf on two different fronts. The first is a Bing for Android update that includes a feature that Microsoft calls “snapshots.” In practice, they’re very similar to the contextual search powers Now on Tap promised in May.
With the new Bing on your device, a swipe up from the Home button from within any app will deliver results from Bing pertaining to what you see on the page. Those could range from simple image search results to icons that jettison you to relevant apps. If you’d rather reserve that specific gesture for Google Now, a small, shadowy half-circle can lurk on the side of your display instead. A swipe to the center summons Bing like Igor from the dungeon.
Here’s how it works in practice: After I installed the Bing app onto my phone and enabled all sorts of permissions (it installs scripts!), I opened my ESPN app and tapped on one of the first headlines under the News section, a story about second-year University of Texas football coach Charlie Strong. I swiped my Bing half-moon left, and a small overlay box appeared to offer micro-information about Charlie Strong, Texas, and the city of Austin, where UT is located. Clicking on the Charlie Strong entry led me to the opening lines of his Wikipedia page, along with icons that offered to shuttle me over to his full Wikipedia page (in Chrome, oddly enough) or to his Twitter account. I know a lot more about Charlie Strong now than I did this morning.
That’s what Bing’s new abilities look like when they work. They often don’t, or at least not as fully as I’d like. In Instagram, for instance, Bing’s very good at telling me more about a specific location, which is helpful on a National Geographic shot of the Gobi Desert, but less so for the overwhelming number of pictures in my feed taken in New York City. Meanwhile, Bing seems uninterested in providing non-geographic information, like any info about the restaurant making this delicious-looking tokubetsu rice bowl. A Bing contextual search over an NPR article about former president Jimmy Carter’s cancer treatment returns one result for Carter, along with descriptions of Hurricane Danny (1997’s, not the one currently traversing the Atlantic) the Associated Press, and NPR itself. Activating Bing within a book in the Kindle app has so far returned only blank stares.
That may sound overly negative; it’s not meant to. There’s absolutely value being added here well beyond what Google currently offers. Filling in memory blanks or adding knowledge with a swipe and a tap instead of pulling up the keyboard and typing in a labored search feels like a small dose of witchcraft when it works, and it often does.
The Bing app accomplishes all this by tapping into its knowledge and actions graph, a collection of over a billion distinct entities, over 21 billion facts about those entities, and over 5 billion relationships between them. You may be more familiar with it than you think; it’s what powers search for Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets. Bing for Android may not offer enough utility to make you drop Chrome from your app tray, but it doesn’t really have to in order to serve its purpose.
“The Bing Android app, we really did it to showcase this experience of the knowledge and action graph showing up in the context of what you’re working on,” says Bing general manager Ryan Gavin. “It’s not the endgame.”
What is, then? A total Android takeover. Well, close to it, anyway.
“That’s kind of first base,” Gavin says of the “overlay experiences” the updated Bing app and Google’s upcoming Android Marshmallow release provide. “They’re good and they’re fine, but where it gets really powerful is when that experience can show up in the context of the app I’m in, where I don’t even have to think about holding down the home button, or some additional overlay to bring on top.”
This, then, is Microsoft’s play to beat Google Now on Tap at its own game: Take away the tap. By opening up its knowledge and actions API, Microsoft enables developers to build their own contextual moments into the fabric of their apps, as opposed to an overlaid card you summon up from the depths of Google’s algorithms.
Part of what enables Bing to do this are 18 billion links to “key actions” that make up part of the fabric of its intelligence graph. Giving developers access to those theoretically allows for a huge range of seamless experiences.
“A messaging app could add a Bing snapshot with actionable info on a restaurant, making it easier for a group to plan an evening,” wrote Bing executive Gurpreet Pall in a recent post announcing the API access. “A social media app could augment users’ photos with information about the locations of each photo. A news app could show definitions and descriptions of terms that users want to drill into. A music app could augment content with snapshots of artists and songs.”
The end result, again, sounds very similar to Google’s Now on Tap. There’s something potentially powerful, though, about being built directly into the apps, losing that last bit of friction. Bing’s approach also has the distinct advantage of working with older versions of Android, while Now on Tap will, at least at first, be limited to only the most recent Nexus devices.
As promising as it all sounds, we won’t know exactly what effect opening up the API has for several more months. “We’ve been quietly working with a number of third parties already and gauging their interest,” explains Gavin, but for now Microsoft is simply fielding requests for access, with an eye toward actual availability this fall. By the time developers are able to incorporate it into their apps, Android Marshmallow will likely already be out. And that’s just one of a few headwinds Bing faces.
A Tough Road
Both Microsoft’s new Bing for Android app and its broader ambitions face challenges ahead, some more serious than others.
We can start with the Bing app, which occasional performance issues aside serves its intended purpose as a showcase app well. What’s potentially tricky for Microsoft, says Jackdaw Research chief analyst Jan Dawson, is that it’s also in many ways similar to another important Microsoft app: Cortana for Android, a personal assistant app that includes search tasks among its many duties.
“Bing and Cortana are distinct brands that stand for different things, with Web search at the center for Bing and your own life at the center for Cortana,” says Dawson. “But Microsoft does risk confusing customers with two similar Android apps launching in such quick succession.“
Gavin, not surprisingly, is unconcerned. “One of the things that we are very deliberate on is not conflating Cortana with search,” he says. “She’s a broker to many, many services. Search is one of them. But she needs to be a broker to Uber, to Domino’s Pizza, to turn off your alarm or change your settings.” Besides which, Cortana doesn’t manage the contextual overlays that Bing now can.
A large enough mass of Android users being aware enough of both apps to potentially confuse them would likely count as a good problem to have. Microsoft’s much larger challenge, though, for both Cortana and its wider Bing ambition, is that it’s playing in someone else’s sandbox.
For an open API to be truly effective, Microsoft needs developers to buy in. The one developer that won’t, unfortunately, is the one that’s most integral to the Android experience: Google.
“Microsoft’s big challenge with both Cortana and Bing is that it they can’t be as deeply integrated as Google Now if you’re using Gmail rather than Outlook,” explains Dawson, “because these virtual assistants rely heavily on seeing into your email.”
It’s not just Gmail, either. Calendar, Chrome, Google search, Maps; these are all apps that Android users rely on daily, that hold the seemingly mundane details that comprise the fabric of our digital existence. Google Now on Tap will be able to leverage them seamlessly. It’s highly doubtful Microsoft will be able to see them at all.
Still, Gavin sounds undeterred. “You can look at current usage patterns and say there’s a whole portfolio of apps people use on their Android phones. Some of them are Google apps, and a lot of them are not,” he says. “So when you think about the incentive system of those apps to drive engagement and increase the time users spend on their phones, this as an added value proposition that they can bring that’s pretty compelling. There’s a lot of usage that hinges outside of the Google ecosystem.”
Google’s dominance, then, might just be a powerful motivator for non-Google apps to get in Bing’s corner.
The good news for Android users? There’s no reason these two can’t coexist. If an Android app uses Bing’s API to let you buy movie tickets faster, great! If Now on Tap makes it easy to turn an email into a dinner reservation, all the better. Either way, your phone gets a little bit smarter, and your life gets easier. Turns out, there’s more than one app for that.