Introducing: Instant Apps

Google’s new app technology could fundamentally change how smartphones are used


As tech conferences go, Google’s I/O 2016 had it all, serving almost every booming sector and introducing genuinely game-changing developments with the usual blend of entirely new products and long-awaited upgrades. Google’s Home was revealed for release later this year, the tech giant’s response to Amazon’s Echo. New Android operating system Google N was further revealed, with features from multi-windowing to brand new emojis enough to excite the Mountain View audience.

Allo, Google’s new messaging app, displayed its response suggestion capability and picture recognition feature, proof the tech industry still believes we’ve not got enough messaging software. On top of all these, Google gave further details of the next Android Wear, along with Daydream - Google’s next step into the booming world of virtual reality. Daydream will allow certain phones to deliver VR content, with a Street View, Youtube and Play Store set to be released specifically for VR.

Amid the wave of new tech, though, Google introduced a concept that could fundamentally change the way smartphone users manage the current disconnect between browsers and apps. Introducing Instant Apps, Google’s way for smartphone users to use applications without downloading and installing them. The function may not be immediately inspiring, but of all the tech on display at Google I/O, it may be Instant Apps which has the biggest knock-on effect in the long-term development of smartphones.

With Instant Apps, Google is looking to bridge the gap between the commitment and effort of downloading an app and the throwaway nature of visiting web pages. 'Instant Apps is really about re-thinking where apps are going,' Google VP of Engineering for Android Dave Burke told TechCrunch. 'Web pages are ephemeral. They appear, you use them, and never think about them again.' The example used was of a smartphone user looking to pay for their parking - the average smartphone user will be averse to downloading an app to pay a one-time parking fee. Instead, the user can hold their smartphone up to the meter, a built-in NFC chip reads it, and a native app appears on a one-use basis without any waiting, confirming or detail-entering. What will be more common, though, is a user clicking on a link - that can be shared - and being presented with a stripped down, smaller version of an app rather than a website.

Instant Apps will allow Google Wallet use, too, so users can pay for things like parking without having to enter lengthy card details or sign up to anything. Essentially, Instant Apps offers all the shareability of a web page with the speed and functionality of an app. The technology is part of a wider move away from browser usage on mobile and toward a slicker, more native smartphone experience. Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple’s News app are examples of more native content consumption in action, as users look to spend less and less time switching between different screens. Consumers already spent around 89% of their time on smartphones on apps and, if the need to download them is removed, they will only become more dominant.

It’ll be some time before Instant Apps are fully rolled out, though. Google argue that it’s a difficult technology to get right, despite developers only having to make slight changes to their existing apps - as opposed to a complete re-write - and TechCrunch claims that developers will be able to have the more basic apps up and running within a day. The future for Instant Apps could be huge. Rather than the standard, rarely changed, tiled collection of apps laid out in pages on users’ smartphones, the experience of using apps could turn into something far more fluid. The development bodes well for smaller app developers, who currently compete for attention in app stores up against a handful of established giants, but will now be able to share the functional aspects of their apps without having to coerce users into a download. Instant Apps’ implementation will be slow and tentative but, if done properly, it could just change the way we think about smartphone use entirely. 

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