Ever since they were first announced at the 2016 Google I/O event, there has been considerable buzz about Android Instant Apps. This January, Google started rolling out limited tests for Instant Apps – with Periscope, Wish and Buzzfeed featuring among the applications that received the update. Last week, version 7.8.15 of Play Store (which currently has 2.8 million+ apps) was launched – and a close inspection of the APK clearly indicates the arrival of Instant Apps in the build. Over here, we will take a closer look at Android Instant Apps – touted as the ‘best Android feature’ in recent times:
What exactly are Instant Apps?
The ‘Instant Apps’ feature brought forth by Google represents a significant piece of innovation in the domain of mobile technology. It allows Android-users to check out a ‘lite’ version of the supported apps directly on the web – without having to download and install the application. An Android app can be stripped down into multiple modules with different functionalities – and the ‘instant’ feature lets people use any particular functionality by directly ‘streaming’ that part of the concerned app. Instant Apps does away with the need for actually downloading an application, for getting the native Android app experience.
App-sharing gets easier
Android Instant Apps have been officially hailed as ‘an evolution in app sharing and discovery’ – and it lives up to this billing by making app-sharing easier than ever before. All that a user has to do is share a link (that opens the ‘instant’ version of the app) with his/her family or friends or other acquaintances – to have them onboard as well. For website owners too, this is a great feature – since links can be shared to bring in more traffic to the online app page (such shared links earlier used to lead to mobile web pages). Wherever a person might be, and whatever might be the precise type of Android device (s)he is using – Instant Apps ensure quick and easy access to interesting, compatible applications.
No additional burden on developers
This is a big thing for Android app developers. Contrary to early rumours, the Instant Apps use the same APIs and source codes as the original applications. Hence, there is no need whatsoever to create two separate versions of the same app. Coders only have to make certain upgradations/modifications to their existing applications – to make them compatible with the ‘Instant Apps’ feature. In other words, the mobile developer only has to divide an app in separate ‘modules’, based on their respective properties/uses. Nothing new has to be built from scratch.
Choosing the account for using Instant Apps
The ‘APK teardown’ of Play Store v.7.8.15 has shown that users have the freedom of choosing the email account that would handle and store all the data and permissions from apps that have the ‘Instant’ feature. There is a new ‘Instant Apps Account’ selection screen, where all the registered accounts of a particular user are displayed – and (s)he has to select the one that would handle the app data. In addition, all payments related to the Android Instant apps will also be managed from that Google account. The Android platform has always offered decent customization options to smartphone-owners, and ‘Instant Apps’ takes this forward.
Greater convenience for app users
According to a recent study, close to 24% individuals use a mobile app only once. The app, then, either remains abandoned and forgotten on the device – or gets promptly uninstalled by the user. Also, people have to typically consider the memory and bandwidth requirements of a new Android application (and Android users are always running short of memory space!) before actually deciding whether to download it or not. The arrival of ‘Android Instant Apps’ takes away all these issues. Since there are no downloads involved, people can simply interact with the portion/module of the app as and when required (no question of app-abandonments). There are no reasons to worry about memory consumption or battery drain due to the installation of a new app. You pull up an Instant App, use it, and be done with it…that’s all!
Presented as a new standard; not an innovation
A close examination of the new version of the Play Store APK provides a clear hint that Google wants ‘Instant Apps’ become a standard feature in future. This belief is emphasized by the fact that, in the build, people can ‘opt-out’ of the ‘Instant Apps’ program (suggesting that it will be present on compatible apps from the start). Unlike what was previously thought, the Mountain View company is not interested in giving people the option to ‘opt-in’ for the feature. Clearly, ‘Instant Apps’ is not being presented as a nice-to-have innovation…it is a new standard that every Android-user is being encouraged to be a part of.
App vs mobile web
Think of it this way. There is a retail shopping website, which also has a mobile app for the Android platform. Information and download link(s) of the app are present on the store – but most general users refrain from installing the app (even if they love the shopping portal), due to data or bandwidth-related concerns. On the mobile platform in particular, the users had to make do with the ‘mobile-friendly’ versions of web pages – which were often not optimized. With Instant Apps doing away with the need for full-fledged app downloads, users can stream and use specific parts of the shopping portal’s app…without any worries. Of course, a native app offers a (much) better user-experience than just another mobile web page.
How to activate Instant Apps?
Note: There are very few applications at present, with the ‘Instant Apps’ feature. However, v.7.8.15 of Play Store has indicated for the first time that support for this new feature is being expanded – and it should only be a matter of time before Android app developers start implementing this feature in their software.
Preview before installation
Remember the ‘15-Seconds-App-Rule’ we had talked about earlier? Well, the arrival of Instant Apps makes this period of judging a new mobile app even more challenging. The onus is squarely on the developers, the UI/UX developers and the animators – to provide an immersive native Android experience to users, so that the latter might be motivated to download the application later. This also opens up the opportunity for app-makers to be more creative while working on new apps. The ‘instant’ version of an Android app offers a preview to target users even before they have visited the Play Store – and if this ‘first interaction’ is positive, probabilities of download behaviour being triggered can grow manifold.
Data, space and time
There are many reasons why end-users would love using Android Instant Apps. For starters, there are no software downloads involved – thereby ruling out the risks of the memory space getting filled up. There can be many instances where searching for a new application (in the Play Store or on the web) takes some time (particularly when the network coverage is weak). In such scenarios, checking out the Instant Apps instead saves time for the users. Finally, downloading and using a full app consumes several MBs (a big app can use up >1GB) of data. Instant Apps, in comparison, use a lot less data – and since they are only opened once for a particular purpose – there are no chances of this data-usage increasing in future.
The question marks
While practically everything seems great (for both general users as well as Android app developers) about Instant Apps, there are a few points of concern. Firstly, there is a definite chance of app engagement levels going down, as more and more people switch over to using the ‘lite’ or the ‘instant’ versions of applications on their mobile browsers. If that happens, traditional metrics/analytics for measuring the success of an app – visits, number of downloads, retention, etc. – have to be rethought. Also, there is still some doubt over how the arrival of Instant Apps will affect the revenue-earning potentials of Android applications. There is scope for deliberation over how Instant Apps are going to fit in the overall mobile app marketing ecosystem as well. Google I/O 2017 kicks off in a week’s time, and more on these topics will hopefully be learnt there.
The massive fragmentation of the Android platform (in April, the adoption rate of Nougat was a measly 4.9%) is a potential obstacle in the path of Instant Apps become widely popular. To tackle this, the backward compatibility of this new feature has been extended to Android 4.1 Jellybean – ensuring that all users with phones upgraded to Jellybean and later versions can check out Instant Apps. Later this year, Android O (will it be ‘Oreo’?) will be launched – and it would obviously support the new feature.
Types of businesses/apps that would benefit most
Given how Instant Apps provide an opportunity to examine the most interesting features of an application even before the latter is downloaded – it can be safely said that the feature is beneficial for nearly all types of businesses and websites. In particular, Instant Apps will be an excellent feature to have for retail shopping websites (think: making a purchase from Amazon, simply by launching the ‘instant’ version of its app) and travel portals (think: people can buy tickets by streaming the concerned the section of an app, without having to install it first.
A long-term replacement of traditional Android apps?
Android Instant Apps have a lot going for them. They offer mobile-users a whole new way of interacting with apps, and avoiding the hassles of downloading and learning to use an application. Since all the important Google Play services are available within Instant Apps, there are no chances of user-experience being compromised at any point. It is fairly simple for developers to create ‘instant’ versions of existing apps as well. However, there is nothing to suggest that Instant Apps will ‘replace’ the traditional Android applications anytime in the foreseeable future. It will take considerable time for the new feature to roll out to all users – and there will always be some apps which will HAVE to be downloaded for using.
Apart from Instant Apps, two other interesting updates – ‘Pre-registration Awards’ and ‘Play Protect’ – were found in the latest version of the Play Store. However, the source of all the information is the APK teardown – and it might well be possible that features present in this build do not make their way to the final release. One thing is for certain though…we are closer to the launch of Android Instant Apps than ever before – and these are exciting times for developers and smartphone-owners alike.