Feb 20, 2018 11:25 AM PT
Android Intelligence Analysis

Google's latest beta hints at what should be a key Android P feature

Is this a sign of Google testing the waters for something grander? If not, then it should be.

TeroVesalainen (CC0)

I don't know about you, but oftentimes, I find the headlining features of a new OS release have less impact on my day-to-day life than the random little touches.

I'm talking about the easily overlooked additions that might not even be mentioned in an official announcement and might go completely unnoticed if you didn't happen to stumble onto them. They tend to be out-of-the-way shortcuts or subtle enhancements to the user experience. And they tend to have the potential make your life just a teensy bit easier — in some small but meaningful way.

Two perfect examples are the fast app-switching shortcut introduced in Android 7.0 and the share menu pinning option also brought about in Nougat. I don't know that either feature was ever actually highlighted in any of Google's unveilings or marketing materials — and both of 'em seemed to get glossed over in most media coverage of the release — but both are things that still save me time and make me more efficient practically every day (much more than say, split-screen mode — which was probably Nougat's biggest marquee element).

Blah, blah, blah, JR: What are you getting at with all this blathering? And why, pray tell, are you talking to yourself in the middle of a column?! Well, I'll answer one of those questions right now:

As we start what's likely the final countdown to Google's 2018 Android P release, it's time to start searching for those subtle little touches that'll likely get lost in the shuffle but end up being incredibly impactful for those of us who latch onto them. And with a fresh update to the beta version of its multipurpose Android Google app this month, I can't help but wonder if we're seeing an early sign of one such entity.

The Google app beta curiosity

In an innocuous-looking release rolled out over the weekend, Google quietly slipped a significant-seeming feature into its eponymous app: the ability for your phone to take notice when you take a screenshot and then jump in immediately to help you edit, annotate, and share the image.

As noted by the sharp-eyed team at 9to5Google, the feature popped up as a buried option within the "Accounts & privacy" section of the Google app's settings (a place we all examine on a daily basis, clearly). At the very bottom of that screen sits the new toggle — which, for me at least, was activated by default upon updating:

JR

As long as it's on, anytime you capture a screenshot within the Google app — which covers the Google feed, any Google-app-initiated searches, and any web pages you open from either of those two places — you'll see a box appear at the bottom of your screen with commands for editing or sharing the image.

JR

The editing interface is incredibly easy to use — and actually pretty handy, too: It has a super-simple tool for cropping an image, in case you just want to show a specific part of the screen, and then it has an intuitive tool for marking up the image using a choice of basic colors.

JR

You could use the latter to circle, underline, or otherwise highlight an area of the screen — or you could use it to block out sensitive info and keep it from being visible before you share or post the image anywhere.

JR

Seem inconsequential? Well, sure — and in the grand scheme of things, it most certainly is. But like we were saying a minute ago, it's often the subtle and insignificant-seeming features that end up having the most meaningful day-to-day impact. Think about how many times you take a screenshot to share somewhere and how many extra steps are required, especially if you want to crop or mark up the image in any way.

This new feature takes a common yet unnecessarily complicated task and makes it a little bit easier. And when it comes to practical impact, that's precisely the kind of tweak that matters.

As Google product director and UX guru Luke Wroblewski‏ put it — while talking about a similar but more limited feature that's already available, in all places, in the Amazon app on iOS — this sort of implementation is "designing for how people really use mobile devices (they take and share a lot of screenshots) vs. porting over existing desktop UI (like sharing links/buttons) to mobile."

It's hard not to look at this and see the connection with earlier Android features like my aforementioned fast app-switching and share menu pinning favorites — features that also seemed small but ultimately had the potential to make a real and ongoing difference in personal productivity.

The problem for now, of course, is that this feature is extremely limited in scope — functioning only when you're working inside the Google app — and the more you play around with it, the more bizarre that limitation feels. This by all counts should be a system-wide feature that pops up and offers to help whenever you take a screenshot, regardless of what app or process you're using.

And that's why I can't help but wonder if Google is giving it a trial run in the Google app and aiming to introduce it more broadly in the future — with either the upcoming Android P release or perhaps some subsequent OS update down the line. It'd make an awful lot of sense, and having now gotten a small taste of the feature's usefulness, I can only hope that's the plan.

For now, if you want to give the instant screenshot-processing system a whirl, open up the Google app page in the Play Store on your Android device and then scroll down to the very bottom of the screen. Tap the button to join the app's beta testing program, wait a minute or two, and then go back and look for an update.

Once the update installs, open up your newly improved Google app, snap a couple of screenshots — and see what you think.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]