Instant Apps are a rare feat of Android brilliance that might just change the OS for good

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.

With new video and text apps featuring the latest advancements in Google's mastery of machine learning and, therefore, AI, it's unsurprising to see most publishers focusing on these with their Google I/O 2016 coverage. Once moonshot projects, significant progress in these two fields has ensured that related pieces have an easy time capturing the minds and dreams of techies and even regular people. After all, Hollywood has been churning out Sci-Fi flick after Sci-Flick, painting a future of self-sustained, independent artificial intelligence that often has super powers derived from something awfully alike to machine learning, or the ability to make decisions and take action based on vast data sets, without being previously programmed to do so. 

I blame nobody for this at least partially subconscious bias in coverage. It's only natural for us to be captivated by developments in these fields, which are already yielding tangible benefits for consumers. Heck, I'm excited too! But when it comes to what Google showcased at I/O 2016, I believe a less-dissected, but more immediately important new feature deserves the spotlight just as much: Instant Apps.

"What were Instant Apps again?"

Simply put, Instant Apps will allow you to open and use apps without having them installed. So next time a friend sends you a link two categories deep into this or that app, you'll be able to experience it just as you would if you had it installed in the first place. Quite alike to web links.

To achieve that, what Android does is simply download only the necessary bits of the code and assets (such as images and fonts, etc.) for that specific location within the app. In a sense, you're essentially 'streaming' apps to your device. It's an elegant solution, really, and one that has the potential to seriously—and perhaps permanently—change the way we think about and experience mobile apps. Especially in the context of ever faster download speeds on mobile. All developers have to do to join is add and rework some of the code to their existing creations.

Instant Apps have a clear path to ubiquity

As with any new initiative that requires developers to do extra work, it's important for them to be solidly on board. I'd say that the value proposition—about which I'll go in even more depth in just a bit—is clear, but as importantly, the amount of dev work required to implement Instant App functionality into existing apps will be apparently easy to stomach. According to Google, most dev teams will need about a day to get the deed done, though more complex/differently structured apps will obviously require more key-punching. 

In any case, it seems that Google has ensured that integrating Instant Apps functionality to third-party apps is easy enough. More importantly, however—and this is a sort of a precedent for Android—this new feature will work on any Android device with API level 16 or higher. In human terms, that means anybody with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean or higher is a potential new user for Instant Apps. And according to my napkin calculations, that's nearly 96% of the entire Android population as of May 2016. When was the last time a new Android feature was available for the entire world, regardless of their firmware version? Yep, that's right, exactly never, more or less. So that's a big draw for devs and a boon for users.

In closing, the field appears set for Instant Apps to become a market reality in an unprecedentedly short time frame. Developers apparently don't need to spend months integrating the new code, the near entirety of the Android user base will have access to it, and this might just be one of the clearer signs of the often-speculated arrival of the 'post-app era'.

Post-app era?

Spend enough time reading stories related to the apps and smartphone industry, and the phrase 'mobile-first' will eventually become as familiar as your palm. Just a buzz word? Not really, as mobile-first is a strategy that many Unicorns (startup companies valued at over $1bn) have embraced, and even the old dogs like Google have been calling themselves mobile-first companies for years now. In Google's case, this stems from the simple fact that, with absolute certainty, mobile traffic—and therefore searches—will eventually overshadow traffic derived from traditional computers. 

But while the mobile-first mantra has ensured that many successful startups first focus on building enticing apps rather than démodé websites, it appears that we're now at a point of app oversaturation. According to comScore data from even as far back as 2014 (2 years is a lot in tech), users were downloading just a little over a single app per month. Critically, a relatively tiny portion of the entire population made up the bulk of downloads, which kind of skews the average. In reality, most people, even then, were over the app obsession of old when we were all lining up around the digital corner to download the latest 'makes-a-fart-noise' app. Today, that's even more so the case.

And it's not that we don't like apps, it's just that we're increasingly uninterested in 'wasting' time hunting them down and searching for them. And even when they're presented to us by chance, we often skip ahead as we can't be bothered with yet another download. Instant Apps has the potential to forever change that.

In the Instant Apps case, apps will both gain and lose importance. Gain, because delivery will be much easier, and therefore quality creations will have access to new, potentially loyal users, but also lose because some will likely see this as a way around having to host at least some apps on their device. The basket of 'must-have' apps, even as claustrophobic as it has become, is in danger of shrinking even further. 

After all, if that park meter has a built-in NFC chip to let me automatically download just the payment page of the associated parking app, then why would I even want the full app to clutter my homescreen and clog my storage? And if product links navigate me deeply into popular e-commerce services, such as eBay and Amazon, after just a web search, then why install those? And, as Google adeptly asked on stage, why would you have the B&H Photo app installed if you only buy a new digital camera every few years or so? All of this is doubly relevant in the context of Google working hard on making pain-free Android Pay payments available in Instant Apps. So why install, when you can just stream? Of course, with this I take for granted that Instant Apps become commonplace.

And they most probably will.

Making sense of this all

Just as Google decoupling essential apps from the core Android software in order to provide easy updates to everybody was a smart and powerful move, so are Instant Apps poised to change Android for the better, and for everybody. With just a paltry 7.5% of the entire installed base running the latest Android 6.0 Marshmallow build, I'd wager that many of you will agree that having neat features locked behind updates that take forever to arrive or never come has been a problem for a long time. Even if it's just tiny fixes, many would prefer to have the latest thing, especially now that Google is working on making the update process seamless and largely invisible to the user. This isn't the case for Instant Apps.

I imagine many dev houses will be spending a lot of time deliberating over Instant Apps, and the few key threats they pose to their full-blown creations. In a developer's mind, you installing their full app will likely always be preferable to you just zapping through its Instant App self. But with Google promising to let the folks behind the apps on your homescreen monetize Instant Apps, and even integrate seamless mobile payments through Android Pay, it's likely that many will follow anyway. Besides, the value proposition here is just too enticing from a consumer point of view—I circle back to the parking app example above—that both businesses looking to provide better services, and the people using those services, will eventually compromise whatever leverage devs have to exert control. In practice, demand for such functionality will (likely) easily overpower inertia and even warranted skepticism.

From where I'm sitting, this is great news for us users, and an opportunity for many under-appreciated and largely invisible developers that have been battling Play Store obscurity and the rising costs of user acquisition to reach users that they'd otherwise have to spend a fortune to. And while I'm not oblivious to the technical constraints in place, I do hope that we see more projects such as Instant Apps that bring tangible benefits to the entire Android population and not just the chosen few with the latest flagships.



1. phonehome

Posts: 812; Member since: Dec 19, 2014

My favorite 'instant' apps are the ones that allow for tethering, video downloading, and some other goodies that I can catch before Apple removes them from the App Store.

2. DnB925Art

Posts: 1168; Member since: May 23, 2013

Chris P., one of my favorite writers on this site. I agree Instant Apps has huge potential. I also think it will help with the low end market, esp. in developing countries where some phones have limited storage capacity - there are still phones with 8GB of storage. Finally monetization for the developer is key. It'll only work in the long terms if there is a long term benefit to them.

21. adecvat

Posts: 659; Member since: Nov 15, 2013

It is bad for developers. Soon no one will install apps and they lose money.

31. Gasteasoro

Posts: 25; Member since: Apr 02, 2014

Some are even worse, I've had a Huawei phone for a couple of months already, and even tho it's got the aforementioned 8GB storage space, for some dumb ass reason, Huawei decided to allocate just 1GB to apps. Which means that installing facebook, whatsapp, Twitter, and sprinkle 1 or 2 comoddity apps and you're full. Even if you still have other 5GB of free storage. The 1GB for apps allocation is complete BS.

3. kiko007

Posts: 7521; Member since: Feb 17, 2016

It's definitely a cool feature for consumers, but I fear the implications for developers. Android already has a severe issue with lack of developer compensation, and this doesn't seem like a function that will help alleviate that problem. Even so, it's nice to finally be able to use an app without the setup process it usually takes :D.

28. epdm2be

Posts: 827; Member since: Apr 20, 2012

quite the opposite. With this approach customers never actually buy the app but hire the bits "needed". The app itself never gets installed on your device. While devs still cash in on their app. I think this is a BAD idea. Just as "streaming services" and apps-for-rent (yearly subscriptions) like office 365 and, soon, Windows 10. As companies have a BAD habit to inflate prices after awhile (sometimes even after just one year). I can imagine all the s**t when you buy a new phone and suddenly "your" apps wont work anymore and require you to re-purchase the bits-and-bites all over again. It's not the first time that a "facebook-"gamer lost all his/her credits after loosing their FB-password and re-creating a new account. No I want the app physically installed on my device. In fact I want to APK file of it after I purchased something so that I can easily re-install it when I buy a new phone.

32. Gasteasoro

Posts: 25; Member since: Apr 02, 2014

You know you can STILL install any app you want onto your phone right? This doesn't mean that you won't be able to install apps a any longer. If anything this should give way more expsosure to rogue apps that not many people use, but via sharing their instant app people will get to glimpse how it works and maybe motivate people o install it too. Even moreseo, if you just don't happen to like the app, you didn't waste time searching for the app, downloading it, installing it, setting up the app, etc. This will help push great apps foward, and further sink mediocre ones.

4. pankajxdx unregistered

I envision a day where we'll have zero apps on our phones, while having access to all of the apps written by every single Android developer, simultaneously! This move has potential to change the way we see smartphones and it's apps/services as of today.

7. krystian

Posts: 423; Member since: Mar 16, 2016

MS has already been working on cloud based apps. This is actually a solution the HP elite X3 has for enterprise customers where the phone has access to all the apps that run on x86-64 architecture on their arm devices. MS has also been talking about how Apps are not the future because there's so many apps out there and most are ignored or just sit on peoples' phones. So it seems all companies are sort of going in that direction. If a standard is developed then this could potentially see some innovation in the OS world where companies don't have to worry that they will have an app problem if they launch a different operating system.

14. pankajxdx unregistered

Interesting! wasn't aware of this.

22. batzz

Posts: 1; Member since: May 28, 2016

Your last words i feel are spot on , as you say , IF THEY LAUNCH A DIFFERENT OPERATING SYSTEM This to me is the killer working system where if thats the case then any operating system one wants to use will work and we all can be free to use an app from any system ..... on a mobile phone devices i like to say ...... look at the potential for operating systems that never got the chance now they can ... this is what it should have been from the start ....

29. epdm2be

Posts: 827; Member since: Apr 20, 2012

You are crazy. I don't know how you interpret this but it is NOT having access to all apps ever written by every Android developer. You still have to pay for an app to "play" it (in the case of paid apps). You just don't need to wait for it to download and install on your device. Which means that whenever you "open" an app, you are required to log-in the play-store. In the end they might even charge you for each time you log-in to play the app. Exactly like streaming music, they can charge you each time you want to hear a particular song (unless you "grab" it and keep it as a download in your library which thus defeat the purpose of this system).

5. Bankz

Posts: 2550; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

The post app era is finally upon us. Can't wait to have zero apps on my phone.

6. roscuthiii

Posts: 2383; Member since: Jul 18, 2010

An excellent article. Well done Chris! I'd just overlooked Instant Apps as web link. It is apparently a pretty lofty initiative. I'm guessing to maintain developer support, it'll eventually have to become a cloud apps type of thing. The user will have to have a one-time download of an app so there's a unique ID assigned to them on a device or server somewhere. And then they'll be able to use the instant app on any of the devices they have. If Nextbit survives with their Robin, they would be poised to take real advantage of Instant Apps.

9. xondk

Posts: 1904; Member since: Mar 25, 2014

Good idea but still a lot of places that have data caps and some such other mobile limitations that are very heavy handed, so I seriously doubt full downloads are going anywhere, downloading the whole thing via wifi and such, and there will still be advantages to full downloads, but definitely a nice middle ground, good idea :)

13. JumpinJackROMFlash

Posts: 464; Member since: Dec 10, 2014

Nah, sounds like a stupid idea. I want the apps I actually use to be installed locally on highspeed flash and not downloaded over slow, unstable mobile networks.

15. AliGee

Posts: 20; Member since: Nov 12, 2014

How long will it take for apple to copy android once again... haha

16. sswain

Posts: 56; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

How about Android "instant security updates" first, then this tomfoolery...

23. srk_s_rao unregistered

Are they like portable apps in windows?

27. dewol

Posts: 1; Member since: Jun 02, 2016

good mobiles

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