Instant Apps: what are they, how do they work, and what does this mean for publishing?

Since the initial flurry of downloads in the early days of the iPad, publishers have found it almost impossible to give their magazine apps real visibility on either of the major platforms. ‘Discoverability’ has been a major headache, not helped by Apple’s decision to can Newsstand last year.

So is Google’s recent announcement about Instant Apps a lifeline to publishers, or is it just another stick on an increasingly complex pile? We take a look at the basics of what they are, how they’re being used and what this could mean for publishing apps.

What is an Instant App?

An Instant App can be accessed by mobile users without the need for installation. Google states that its aim is to be able to bring users into apps more quickly and easily, and this sets out a vision where people can access an app through a URL, in much the same way as a webpage.

“Your app will be just one tap away to a billion people,” a spokesperson for Google said, explaining that they want to get rid of ‘install friction’ on the mobile experience.


How does it work?

As usual with these sweeping tech announcements, not a great deal has been said about how it actually works. Anything explained here is gleaned from a number of sources; the most reliable of which are cited and linked to at the bottom of this article, should you wish to investigate further.

Essentially, Instant Apps works by cutting out subsections of apps and serving them to users in a granular fashion.

As an example, if someone has a recipe they want to share with me from an app, they can send me a URL to the content. Rather than downloading the whole app, the relevant module containing the recipe is loaded to my device – the minimal amount of code needed to display what I’m looking for. I can then choose to download the full app, or carry on as normal.

Android Instant Apps infographic

As demonstrated in the video above, another practical example would be paying for parking. Rather than downloading an app in the parking lot, I could simply tap my phone against an NFC chip (near-field communication: a wireless chip) on the parking meter, and be able to quickly pay for parking using Android Pay as the relevant app module would load up, and disappear when no longer needed.

Why is this better than a webpage or an app?

At a very basic level, this is taking the principle of single web pages and applying them to apps. Web pages can’t quite compete with app functionality yet as it’s limited to the capabilities of HTML5 and Javascript. This means they work on a universal level, but struggle to keep up with the rich options available to apps.

On the other hand, apps can be cumbersome to download, and people are downloading less of them. It’s annoying for users to have to download a whole app for a single use (like car parking), and frustrations with available space on mobile devices are shared by almost everyone.

Instant Apps could be a good bridge between the two, until the web has caught up with native app capabilities.

How will this affect my existing app?

The first thing to understand is that this isn’t an overnight change. Google have outlined a cautious plan to start rolling out to developers and users towards the end of the year, but have few specifics past that.

“It’s a big change in how we think about apps,” a product manager at Google said. “We want to get it right, and that’s going to take some time for us”.

Rather than having to build a new app, the team at Google assert that it is simply a case of updating the existing app to work in a modular way. The app can still be packaged as one download, but can also be bundled up into chunks. They estimate that a good developer could make this update in a day. It will also work on devices with the Jellybean OS and above – that’s quite a way back considering that Marshmallow is now well-established.

There are a couple of conditions though. This only applies to apps built using native code in Android Studio, and won’t work for ‘build once, deploy everywhere’ models. Unsurprisingly, Instant Apps will only apply to apps published on the Google Play Store to ensure a basic level of user security.

At the moment, it is all still in development although the first APIs and frameworks are available to developers in the Android Studio. There’s no need to make decisions about it this early on, but prepare for it to be a key part of digital discussions next year.

What are the potential benefits for publishers?

This depends on your app and what future you see for it!

It could offer an alternative way to get content out there without increasing dependencies on Facebook. It should be an attractive proposition in terms of discoverability, as it opens the app ecosystem to give users a ‘taster’ of how fantastic your app is.

Of course, this means that the best apps will probably do very well, and unfortunately the PDF replicas won’t. Deep linking means that users can be taken straight to content they want to see, and this has huge implications for article sharing.

Perhaps a publisher’s website will no longer serve duplicates of articles. If users can get a taste of a beautiful article with the surrounding functionality of an app, websites may pale by comparison.

How big will this be, really?

Pretty big. Google has a habit of picking up on ways it can change things for the better for its users years before anyone else. This is also leapfrogging some of Apple’s developments in this area, and with the increasing domination of Android devices, this announcement could be a timely punch to its tech giant rival.

“A company like Google can keep a careful eye on how Instant Apps develop, and tweak their capabilities as they go along,” Bill Ray of Vision Mobile said. “Instant Apps will provide useful functionality, just as Google has been demonstrating at its developer conference, but at the cost of locking out the competition”.

The key point coming out from this is that it will be a barely-perceptible change to the lives of everyday people. Like Facebook’s in-app browsers, many will hardly notice that they’re navigating in and out of apps, or that the whole nature of the humble URL has changed. But as we know, these subtle changes are often the ones that have an enormous long-term impact on the way we engage with our mobile devices.

The buzz around Instant Apps has died down since Google’s I/O Developer Conference in May, but expect it to pick up again when they start rolling out the first apps towards the end of the year. If they do it right, this could be the move that defines 2017 for many of us.

Google wants your apps to load without a download – Alphr
Here are the most exciting things Google announced at its giant conference
– Business Insider
How to deploy Android Instant Apps – TechBeacon
A taste of apps without the commitment – The Verge
Introducing Android Instant Apps – Google

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