Android Instant Apps : A taste of apps without the commitment, but will it be a hit?

With Allo and Duo now out, let’s talk about another thing that Google talked about at its I/O developer conference in May. Google showed off a new feature for Android called Instant Apps. With deep links, Android users will be able to use apps from a link without having to download anything from the Play Store. The basic idea is simple: when you click on a link, if that link has an associated Instant App at the URL you get a tiny version of that app instead of the website.

Take that idea and think on it a second: there’s a whole class of apps that you use once and never want to bother with again.

It’s supposed to be as fast (if not faster!) than loading up a web page with the same functionality. It works because developers can “modularize” their apps so they only serve you the parts that you need for whatever you clicked on — points on a map, a video, some home listings, a payment system, or whatever.

Instant Apps could help developers avoid all the problems they currently experience in the app store: instead of begging for installs or trying to climb the rankings, they can just let a link get shared around on Twitter. But the Google Play app store is still around —  one of the reasons they’re so fast is that Google is delivering these apps from their servers, and Google Play is intimately involved in approving and publishing these instant apps.

It’s like some of the best parts of the web (shareable links) without the worst part (Javascript) — but specific only to Android, which is a bummer. It’s also like the best parts of apps (speedy, native functionality) without the worst parts (App store rankings), too. It’s all really complicated but completely fascinating.

Users simply need to search the web for an app of their choosing and those featuring a Try Now label are available for streaming. Those which aren’t compatible will offer a link to the Play Store instead.

The idea is geared towards supporting Google’s mobile ads business. If users are getting most of their content from apps, rather than from the web, then Google loses out big time when it comes to selling ads.

The plan, Google hopes, will keep Android users coming to the web for their content, which allows it to make bank from serving ads. You can see a little preview of the app streaming in the video (via 9to5Google) below.  Note that for now this is available only if you’re a beta tester for the Google App. Here are some details from Google on becoming a tester.

However, before we all start betting the farm on Instant Apps, let’s take a pragmatic look at the potential impact of this technology.

Enterprises

Until now, the native platform app- Android or iOS-  represented a siloed treat for a brand’s most loyal users. It’s a must-have for all significant consumer brands, and executives at these companies will proudly flaunt their native app, boasting of their trendiness. However, in reality, the team responsible for the native app is often fragmented from the rest of the company. This leads to a disconnected product strategy and overall lower quality experiences in mobile. The app is just not a priority for most large enterprises. For instance, take a look at the Amazon android app. It’s so annoying to use it compared to say Snapdeal’s app or Flipkart’s app. (Or is it just me?)

Why, you might ask? The reason is that the ratio of users in the native app is still relatively low compared to the amount of foot traffic in the store (if the said enterprise has one) or web traffic on the site. Instant Apps promises that this balance of traffic will be dramatically changed, driving a majority of mobile users to the native app instead of the mobile web. It means their native experience is about to get a firehose of new users.

With this additional traffic comes the additional burden to ensure the native app is up to date with the rest of the site and bug free. It’s good for the consumers of course but to address this problem, the team responsible for the native app will need to be better integrated into the organization and likely better staffed. Large, traditional companies will first have to make the decision that it’s meaningful to their business to support the new technology; then they’ll need to spend a year or more reorganizing. Just think about how long it took most companies to build mobile-friendly websites.

Marketing

Marketing teams of large enterprises have typically struggled to incorporate their native app into their day-to-day activities. When you’ve spent the last 15 years sending millions of emails a day promoting your website, it’s difficult to include an existing native app in these campaigns, let alone Instant Apps. Meanwhile, 66 percent of emails are opened from mobile devices.

The problem for these marketers is that in an app-based world, browser cookies are useless. Cookies are the foundation for user identities on the web, helping to ensure user experience consistency and supporting for robust reporting on user activities. Cookies don’t exist within apps, which has already significantly splintered the user identity. However, it hasn’t been a significant issue to date, as app users only represent a small portion of a business’s total user base.

But what happens when most mobile traffic suddenly disappears from cookie-based analytics systems? Or you can’t retarget audiences based on a tracking pixel? Or mobile clicks don’t register in your email service provider dashboard? If mobile, which represents a majority of digital traffic for these businesses, suddenly doesn’t show up in their tools, it’s catastrophic.

Imagine a futuristic world where you have to maintain a mobile website, an Instant App, and a full Android app, an iOS app and may be, instant apps for iOS as well since Apple is definitely not just sitting. It’s working on something similar. Campaign messaging would need to be designed to show in all formats and implemented in each. A marketing manager will need to pester the product managers for each platform to ensure consistency. It’ll be a logistical nightmare.

With the onset of Instant Apps, links that point to a business’s property must now assume parity across the website, Instant App, and native app. But I know from experience that links rarely work across both the web and the app. This introduces an entirely new platform that must support linking and provide functional parity. It will require substantial effort from the product team to ensure this parity across the three different potential user experiences on the Android platform alone, let alone iOS and Apple’s upcoming response, App thinning.

Other companies, including Microsoft, have attempted to stream apps in the past with mixed results. It’s not clear if Google’s Instant Apps will support complex apps or instant game play — Instant Apps will be limited to 4mb for now — but the demonstrations by Google in May showed web apps launching instantly. Google showed off Instant Apps on a phone running Android KitKat, and said it will be compatible with Android phones all the way back to Jellybean. Instant Apps will be rolling out to users later this year.

What do you think? Are instant apps destined to be a hit? Or having to maintain another platform apart from the website, mobile website, and a full dedicated app, will set developers off?

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