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Android M's Now on Tap cyber-secretary is like Clippy on Class A drugs

Plus: Android Pay, fingerprint tech ... but for now, only if you're a developer

Google I/O Google today showed off the latest build of Android, version M, at its annual developer conference Google I/O in San Francisco.

"Version L was a major release so with M we've gone back to basics," Sundar Pichai, Google's senior veep and heir presumptive to the advertising giant's throne. "The focus is on polish and quality and we're thought through every detail."

It's clear Google has been smarting a bit over accusations that it's falling behind Apple. The new build of Android hopes to address this in a couple of key areas: payments and security.

Android Pay

This autumn, Google will be rolling out Android Pay, a near-field communications (NFC) contact-less payment system that will apparently work in more than 700,000 US stores, has the support of all the major credit card companies, and will be installed on phones from Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile US.

Crucially, from a security standpoint, the Android Pay system doesn't exchange credit card numbers with shop registers – instead a virtual account number is generated for each transaction. That should cut fraud on malware-ridden tills.

From a developer standpoint, Google has pledged to keep Android Pay open so that it can be added into applications with the minimum of fuss. Expect a rash of rewards programs from brands for using the wireless pay-by-bonk system once Android Pay goes live. Android Pay will only work with KitKat (version 4.4) or later builds of the operating system.

Fingerprints all over the Chocolate Factory

On the security side, the new version of Android will, at last, work with fingerprint sensors to unlock a phone or tablet and within applications to, for example, authorize purchases. Apple users will be familiar with this, and the news it was to be added to Android brought a healthy round of applause.

That said, fingerprint unlocking won’t be the method of choice for the privacy-conscious. Not only are they pretty easy to fool, but legally they are quite different from a password or gesture. A US court ruled last year that fingerprints aren't covered under the 5th Amendment, meaning police can force you to unlock your phone via fingertip in a way they can't with a passcode.

App permissions

Android M will also include much finer user controls as to what apps can access, and how they harvest data, assuming the app follows a new API. Right now, when you download an application, a screen tells you what data and hardware the software wants to access, but it's an all-or-nothing deal.

The new build will let users choose what data to allow third-party apps to use as they run the app, not when they install it. They can retroactively shut down permission for apps in the settings page, and look to see what apps are using what and change the permission settings.

This is a feature users have been crying out for for ages, and a market third-party app developers have been forging by themselves. Google bundled the app permissions system in Android 4.3 as a hidden feature but quickly pulled it when the news spread, calling it an "accident."

Battery life improvements

Android M will also be much more thrifty with power, Google claimed. A new system, dubbed Doze, slashed operations during standby, and Google said that in tests its Nexus 9 tablet saw battery life double as a result.

Recharging times are also going to be speeded up once new reversible Type-C USB connectors come to phones and tablets. The cables will recharge hardware three to five times faster, Google claimed, and will allow device-to-device charging as well.

Now on Tap: Like Microsoft Office's Clippy on steroids ('I see you're writing an email!')

Google Now is also getting an upgrade in Android M, to become Now on Tap (yes, really). Now will now be able to scan whatever you are looking at on the screen, and pop-up a card displaying relevant information or offers of help about whatever you're doing. Apps won't need to be majorly modified to take advantage of this digital assistant.

During the keynote, Google showed how reading a text message about picking up dry cleaning would pop up a card offering to set up a calendar reminder to do so, and reading an email about going to see a film brought up links to its IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes pages and a YouTube video of the trailer.

All this is possible because the operating system can link back to Google's machine-learning servers and work out what the user wants before they realize it. While Google thinks such a system is just spiffy, some might find it somewhat unsettling and intrusive, and ultimately leave it unused.

And more ... but when?

Apps have also been tweaked. Chrome is getting customizable tabs; Maps gets a major upgrade, including the ability to get turn-by-turn navigation even when a device is offline; and the Photos section has received a major rewrite, and there'll be more details on that later in the day.

There was, however, one pachyderm in the Moscone Center that Google didn’t address – availability. While the Android M developer release is out now, and the final version will be pushed out by the end of the year, that's only for Nexus and other Google kit.

Given what we've seen from other smartphone manufacturers so far, it's going to be a long time, if ever, before Android M gets pushed out to their hardware; most users will probably end up buying a new phone before it arrives.

This fragmentation headache is something Google has been promising to address for some time now, and it had been hoped that it would give some hints about how to fix the problem.

Sadly, there was no word on that – so it looks like you're pretty much stuck with the smartphone operating system you bought unless you have the ability and desire to manually install it yourself. ®

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