Posted Nov 23, 2017

Google Instant Apps: What It Means For Users & Developers

What Is Google Instant Apps?

It’s said that patience is a virtue however with the release of Android instant apps, Google seems set to eliminate its necessity. First announced in Google IO 2016; Google Instant Apps promised Android users a new way to interact with the world of applications. Up until now to use an app a user had to download and install it usually through an app store; this is symmetric to the process we use for purchasing items in the world, when we want to buy an item we go to a store and we pay an amount of money(which may be zero if it’s free) and then it is ours. This flow is familiar so it’s no surprise that the established app ecosystems were built using it.

Instant apps give a new way to interact with apps. When a user needs an app they aren’t required to acquire it from the store, instead their device will download a miniaturized version of the application and load it instantly; and once the user is finished with the app it’s gone, no need to uninstall or delete data, it’s as if it was never there. Carrying on with our store analogy this is akin to a remarkably well timed salesperson who turns up at the door exactly the moment they’re needed.

How Does Google Instant Apps Work?

Before delving into the uses of instant apps it makes sense to discuss how instant apps function from a high level. The entire system is built on top of Android App Links which link a web domain (such as www.xdesign.com) with an app, instant apps extend this by detecting when a user interacts with a url for a linked domain and loading an associated instant app from Google Play if there is one available.

From a design perspective an instant app will represent a single feature. An app which provides several features would need to provide several different instant apps, each of which would be linked to a different url in the same domain. This is a good time to mention that in order to provide an instant app a full app needs to be available on Google Play, instant apps aren’t intended to be a freestanding entity on their own, they’re intended to be discrete portions of an app that can be downloaded the traditional way.

As long as there have been mobile devices there has been a debate over whether it’s better to provide an app or to provide a mobile friendly version of a website. The benefits of a mobile site is the ease of access for any device with a net connection and that they can work across platforms; the main benefits of an app is the possibility to function without a net connection, a better user experience and access to device hardware. This split has given rise to the common practice of mobile sites which include a banner compelling the user to “Try our mobile app” as an attempt to notify users of the existence of the app.

Instant apps provide a middle ground between these two by combining the UX and hardware access of an app with the availability of a mobile site. No longer does a user need to be redirected by a site banner to download an app from a store; instead the app will load in lieu of the site, no mess, no fuss.

This alone is a useful feature but in terms of instant apps it’s only the tip of the usefulness. As was mentioned earlier an instant app is launched when a user attempts to access a url; The obvious place for this is in a web browser but it is not restricted to that behaviour, any url the Android OS detects will be treated the same for the purposes of instant apps. What this means is that when a user taps share in an app and sends a url to their friend in their messaging system of choice, their friend will be treated to the same user experience as the user had shared it. We’re sharing experiences as well as content.

This even works with QR codes and Google Eddystone beacons. Its common practice to embed url inside a QR code so when a user scans it they’re directed to a website, we place them on posters for this very reason. And when a user gets to that site we show a page which redirects them to the app store of their platform. By comparison, with an instant app the user would scan the code and then would instantly have the app the poster was advertising. Alternatively a venue may allow users to make use of an application for various purposes, place a beacon by the door and every user who passes by could have the app loaded up on their device. This could be to order drinks at a bar, scan as you shop at a supermarket or even in the home to provide interaction with a smart home appliances.

Why Use Google Instant Apps?

It has been said that one of the cornerstones of being a successful business is to make it easy for people to give you money. Amazon’s one click order is a fantastic example of this as is PayPal’s checkout process The longer and more complex a user’s interaction the more likely it is they’ll lose interest, change their mind or get interrupted. The same is true with mobile app downloads, the more hurdles there are between a user and a goal the less likely they are to make it there. This means there could be an entire user base out there who would love your app but have never used it since they had to go through a process to get it which seemed like it gave too little reward for too much effort.

This is where instant apps shine, a user gets access to your app without having to cross a ny hurdles, it’s seamless. And if they decide they like it enough to download then they can, without even leaving the instant app.

It should probably be mentioned, however, that not all projects are suitable for an instant app. Instant apps don’t work well with authentication unless the app uses Google Smart Lock they also can’t store data in the long term, have a limited ability to run in the background and a reduced set of permissions they can access. On the other hand however they are almost guaranteed to have a network connection as they must have just been downloaded if they’re running, they also provide an inbuilt hook into the Play Store to allow a user to download the full version of the application.

Limitations

In a twist of irony the biggest downside with instant apps seems to have been it’s slow rollout. With a year between the initial announcement and the release of the developer tools a lot of people have forgotten that it was coming. This issue has also been intensified by the features lack of support on most handsets since at first only the last generation of Nexus devices and Google own Pixel range included the feature and even then it was disabled by default requiring users to enable it.

Google announced in August that handset support had been extended which brought support to over 500 million users in countries it’s available in, this should go some way alleviating the issue. Discoverability of the feature should also be improved as Google announced in October that the Play Store would be adding a “Try now” button to apps that are available as an instant app. Hopefully both of these changes will help to kick start the instant app ecosystem which offers a lot to the mobile user experience.

It’s plain to see that instant apps will provide a lot of utility, they also have the potential to change how apps fit into the day to day lives of users. It wouldn’t be outlandish to say that this is the biggest switch the mobile app ecosystem has seen since the addition of app stores. With that in mind it’s been eight years since Apple famously remarked “There’s an app for that”, with instant apps we can now say “There’s an app for that, and here it is”.

 

Author: Keith Kirk

Published by

Mairead Quigley

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