Google has begun testing Android Instant Apps, a mobile application format delivered by streaming rather than as a downloaded file.
"Today, a few of these Instant Apps will be available to Android users for the first time in a limited test, including apps from BuzzFeed, Wish, Periscope, and Viki," said Google software engineer Aurash Mahbod in a blog post on Monday. "By collecting user feedback and iterating on the product, we'll be able to expand the experience to more apps and more users."
The distinction between streaming and downloaded apps may seem insignificant, but it delineates a meaningfully different user experience – Android Instant Apps can be used as soon as the user selects the app in a web link, instead of only after the app has been downloaded, installed, and opened.
Android Instant Apps should serve to obscure the line between web apps and Android apps on Chromebooks, which since Chrome OS version 53 have included the ability to download and run Android apps. Android Instant Apps behave like websites and web apps, with availability depending on network speed rather than a full set of app files being resident on the device.
Making life easier on app users requires developers to do a bit of extra work. Google recommends that Android developers put their apps on a diet to reduce the APK size, which has to be transmitted to the user over a network one way or another. This involves trimming unused resources, minimizing libraries, reducing animation frame rates, using dynamically created objects instead of static images, compressing graphics, and other techniques.
Instant Apps also need to support URL-addressable navigation through App Links, which may require code refactoring. In addition, they need to implement the Android 6.0 runtime permission model.
What's more, developers need to modularize their apps to isolate Android features that aren't available in Instant Apps. These include capabilities like background services, push notifications, and accessing unique device identifiers, including Settings Secure Android ID (SSAID), Build Serial, Mac Addresses, IMEI, and IMSI. The Advertising ID is still accessible, however.
The benefit for developers is that once an app has been streamed to a device, the full app gets installed and remains on the device, which should make ongoing use more likely.
But Instant Apps improve a process that increasingly looks broken. Metrics firm comScore last year reported that 49 per cent of Americans on average do not download any apps in a given month. It also said mobile web usage (+82 per cent since 2014) is growing at a faster rate than mobile app usage (+45 per cent since 2014). Such figures led a number of news organizations last year to proclaim that the app boom is over.
While mobile apps remain widely used, most of that usage goes to a few massively popular apps. The top seven mobile apps last year were owned either by Google or Facebook, according to comScore. Apps from other companies or individuals face an uphill battle to get attention, to get installed, and to get used regularly.
That challenge becomes even more acute when an app is loaded onto a device with dozens of other apps, where it may be forgotten or ignored. Mobile device interface limitations can make finding installed apps too time-consuming to bother with.
Among the various novel technologies for content discovery and distribution that could alter the dynamics of traditional web search and app stores – chatbots, voice-based interaction, and services integrated into chat apps – Google has been pushing Progressive Web Apps (PWAs).
As web standards mature to enable offline functionality and as browsers implement these standards, PWAs could fill in for Android Instant Apps fairly easily. The characteristics of PWAs – rapid loading, responsiveness, and the ability to work offline – are more or less the same as Android Instant Apps. While Android apps have certain advantages, like potential inclusion in Google Play, PWAs have merits of their own, like better search-based content discoverability and viability beyond Google's ecosystem.
To date, apps based on web technology haven't performed as well, or been received as well, as native apps on mobile devices. But if future updates of Apple's Safari and Microsoft's Edge browsers implement support for web technology like ServiceWorkers, then PWAs could become preferable to Android Instant Apps or other native mobile apps. ®