Google I/O 2015: How context is slowly killing off the mobile app menu

Google's new Now On Tap feature, coming with Android M, shows a future where you don't hunt through home screens and menus to find an app. The right apps come to you.

For the last eight years we've been staring at home screens and app launchers on phones. Eight years from now, we won't be. At least not if Google has anything to say about it.

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Instead, the company is slowly building towards a future where folder after folder and home screen after home screen don't matter any more. That's because context is quietly becoming the next app menu on mobile devices.

During its introduction of the new Android M software on Thursday, Google also spent a fair amount of time on how Google Now is evolving.

The contextual platform that surfaces content at the right place and time is getting an upgrade with something the company calls Now On Tap. And it's going to make your smartphone smarter while connecting you with relevant apps based on the type of information you want on a moment's notice.

Google's Now On Tap focuses on three main actions: Context, Answers and Actions. The software understands what it is you're looking for and provides additional useful information as a result.

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In a demo, Google showed an incoming email asking the recipient if they wanted to eat a particular restaurant the next day. Tapping and holding the Android home button brought up quick hit ratings along with apps that provide more information and reviews about the dining establishment, for example.

Using the Google Play Music app in another demo where a Skillrex song was playing, a home button tap and hold followed by asking "what is his real name?" returned the Search result of Sonny John Moore, the real name of the artist.

Note that Now On Tap realized that the "his" in the question referred to the now playing artist; i.e.: Google natively understood the context of the question.

A third example was shown in a text message: The recipient was asked about a particular place for dinner and there was a brief mention of forgetting to pick up dry cleaning.

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Now On Tap surfaced the four most likely apps you'd need to find, learn about or get ratings of the restaurant along with the option to add a reminder for the dry cleaning. The context of the message is smartly used to figure out what relevant apps actually appear.

This isn't exactly new from Google: The company has been opening up its Google Now platform to third party developers and how has 100 app partners.

Google Now cards with bite-sized chunks of contextual information pop up and apps relevant to that data are a tap away.

In other words, you don't have to find the app in a menu; it appears at the right time and place alongside the contextual data that Now provides.

Compared to searching through folders and screens to find an app at a relevant time you'll definitely need it -- before you even know you need it -- is a big change from the past eight years.

And Google is well positioned to have these apps appear at relevant times: It now indexes apps in search results for both Android and iOS plus the context engine behind the scenes understands 100 million places.

Combined with the one billion entries in Google's Knowledge Graph, also part of Google Now, the company can put apps together with information, places and times in a way that changes how we use mobile devices.

So long messy home screens filled with a flood of apps and folders. I won't miss you.

Related: Proactive for iOS 9: Apple's challenge to Google Now

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