Google has launched an official beta channel for the Android Google search app. Users looking to test the latest features of the app can opt in to the beta through Google Play's beta service.
We haven't seen an official announcement anywhere, but the beta signup process works and will serve a newer Google app than the normal channel. Presumably Google will use this the same way it does the Chrome beta channel—to test in-development features and bug fixes. We signed up, and our Google app updated from 220.127.116.11 to 18.104.22.168, but it doesn't seem like anything significant has changed.
Google could potentially make a lot of changes through the Google app. It doesn't just cover Google searches on Android; the Google app is the home screen, the app drawer, Google Now and Now on Tap, voice recognition, and the always-on voice commands.
Many users found out firsthand just how powerful the app was earlier this month, when Google pushed out the "Marshmallow" home screen and search design to older versions of Android. After updating, the horizontal, paginated app drawer from Lollipop changed to a single vertical pane. The voice search interface was also updated, and Google Now's design was completely overhauled.
The beta channel could also have a lot to do with the Marshmallow-exclusive Google Now on Tap—a contextual search mode that scans the current screen for relevant search info. At the Nexus launch event in September, Dave Burke, VP of engineering at Android, ended his demo by saying "We're excited to get this feature out to users now, and continue to iterate and improve it with regular updates, via the Play Store."
We imagine this beta channel will be the quickest way to get those updates.