Instant Apps: What are they and how will they transform media?

2017 will be the year Android’s Instant Apps gain real traction, but it will be the impact on everyday people that promises the biggest differences.

There are a host of well-documented issues around publishing and media companies launching apps, with discoverability being one of the biggest challenges.

Google are looking to smooth the app download experience, and have begun to roll out limited tests of their new ‘Instant Apps’ project with apps from Buzzfeed and Periscope, among others. 

The announcement about Instant Apps, made at Google’s I/O Developer Conference last May generated interest among dedicated fans and technology journalists, but the publishing and media world failed to take much notice.

Not to be confused with Facebook’s Instant Articles, Instant Apps are a neat way of bringing apps to the people who need them to solve problems without having to download them. It may not have got as many column inches as the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project, but could be just as significant for bridging the app – web divide.

Here is a rundown of what Instant Apps are, how they’re being used and what this could mean for media organisations with apps or who are looking to launch them.

What is an Instant App?

An Instant App can be accessed by mobile users without the need to install or download it. Google states that its aim is to bring users into apps more quickly and easily, and this sets out a vision where people can access an app through a URL, in much the same way as a webpage.

“Your app will be just one tap away to a billion people,” a spokesperson for Google said, explaining that they want to get rid of ‘install friction’ on the mobile experience.

How does it work?

Essentially, Instant Apps works by cutting out subsections of apps and serving them to users in a granular fashion.

As an example, if someone wants to use a recipe from an app, they have to download the full app to get to the specific content. With Instant Apps, rather than downloading the whole app, the relevant module containing the recipe is loaded to the device – the minimal amount of code needed to display what the user is looking for. They can then choose to download the full app, or carry on as normal. This recipe would also show up in Google search like a web page, whereas current app content doesn’t appear in search.

Another practical example would be paying for parking. Rather than downloading an app in the parking lot, a user could simply tap their phone against an NFC chip (near-field communication: a wireless chip) on the parking meter, and be able to quickly pay for parking using Android Pay as the relevant app module would load up, and disappear when no longer needed.


This is demonstrated in the diagram above, where a standard app is downloaded to the device, with everything bundled together. The Instant App on the right opens sections of the app temporarily, discarding them when finished without the need to download the whole bundle.

Why is this better than a webpage or an app?

At a very basic level, this is taking the principle of single web pages and applying them to apps. Web pages can’t quite compete with app functionality yet, limited by the capabilities of HTML5 and Javascript. This means they work on a universal level, but struggle to keep up with the rich options available to apps.

On the other hand, apps can be cumbersome to download, and people are downloading fewer of them. It’s annoying for users to have to download a whole app for a single use (like car parking), and frustrations with available space on mobile devices are shared by almost everyone.

Instant Apps could be a good bridge between the two, until the web has caught up with native app capabilities.

How will this affect my existing app?

Rather than having to build a new app, the team at Google assert that it is simply a case of updating the existing app to work in a modular way. The app can still be packaged as one download, but can also be bundled up into chunks. They estimate that a good developer could make this update in a day. It will also work on devices with the Jellybean OS (2013) and above – that’s quite a way back considering that Nougat is now well-established.

There are a couple of conditions though. This only applies to apps built using native code in Android Studio, and won’t work for ‘build once, deploy everywhere’ models. Unsurprisingly, Instant Apps will only apply to apps published on the Google Play Store to ensure a basic level of user security.

What are the potential benefits for publishers?

Principally, It could offer an alternative way to get content out there without increasing distribution dependencies on Facebook and other third-party platforms. It should be an attractive proposition in terms of discoverability, as it opens the app ecosystem to give users a ‘taster’ of how fantastic your app experience is.

Of course, this means that the best apps will probably do very well at this, and unfortunately the PDF replicas won’t. Deep linking means that users can be taken straight to content they want to see, and this has huge implications for article sharing.

Perhaps a publisher’s website will no longer serve duplicates of articles. If users can get a taste of an article with the surrounding functionality of an app, websites may pale by comparison.

How much attention should we be paying?

It’s difficult to say how much of an impact this will have in the short term. Many publishers have stopped significant investments in apps, reverting to cheap options or straight PDF replicas. Updating apps to keep them in line with this sort of functionality will unfortunately be at the bottom of the to-do pile.

However, a word of warning on ignoring these developments: Google has a habit of picking up on ways it can change things for the better for its users years before anyone else. This is also leapfrogging many of Apple’s developments in this area, and with the increasing domination of Android devices, this announcement could be a timely punch to its tech giant rival. If you have an app, this should form a key part of your strategic discussions for the coming 6 months. 

“A company like Google can keep a careful eye on how Instant Apps develop, and tweak their capabilities as they go along,” Bill Ray of Vision Mobile said. “Instant Apps will provide useful functionality, just as Google has been demonstrating at its developer conference, but at the cost of locking out the competition”.

The key point coming out from this is that it will be a barely-perceptible change to the lives of everyday people, but that doesn’t mean its potential should be ignored. Like Facebook’s in-app browsers, many will hardly notice that they’re navigating in and out of apps, or that the whole nature of the humble URL has changed. But as we know, these subtle changes are often the ones that have an enormous long-term impact on the way we engage with our mobile devices.

Questions to ask about your app strategy and Instant Apps:

  • Would your content work being unbundled and served in this way?
  • How could you use this type of app ‘sampling’ to draw readers in?
  • What is the purpose of your app and how can you use Instant Apps to further your aims?



By | 2017-02-06T00:01:00+00:00 February 6th, 2017|Analysis|Comments Off on Instant Apps: What are they and how will they transform media?

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