With Instant Apps, Google Aims to Make the Web and Apps One
Let’s say a friend texts you a 360-degree 3D photo of the new kombucha brewery in his basement. This is one of those self-consciously tech-savvy hipster friends who uses all the latest smartphone apps. And well, you don’t. You don’t have that 360-degree 3D photo app, and frankly, you don’t really feel like downloading The way apps work now, you’d just have to give up on seeing that basement panorama in all its glory. But Google wants to change that. It wants to give you a way to view that photo from inside the app without ever having to download the app at all.
This is not the paradox it seems. At its annual Google I/O conference this week, Google unveiled what it calls Instant Apps—a new breed of software app that arrives on your phone almost instantly without a lengthy download. The trick is that these Instant Apps are in fact tiny slivers of a larger app that handle very small and particular tasks—such as panning through a 360-degree photo.
“What if you could use ten times a many apps without stopping to download all of them?” ask Michael Siliski, the Google product manager who’s overseeing the Instant Apps effort.
So far, like much else revealed at I/O, Instant Apps aren’t yet ready for public consumption. Siliski says they’ll arrive later this year. But if they work as advertised, they’ll push us even further into a world where smartphones operate more quickly and seamlessly. Google, among others, is already building mobile webpages that behave kinda like apps while still arriving on your phone almost instantly. And now it’s trying to build apps that arrive as quickly as webpages. Eventually, the two will meet somewhere in the middle, which would suit Google—whose core business still depends on the web—just fine.
Aiming for the Minimum
But first, companies and coders must build these Instant Apps. That will mean splitting existing apps into several smaller modules, each suited to a particular task and each attached to its own Internet address. Google is giving developers a way to do this via the same tools they used to build the app as whole—in particular, with a set of application programming interfaces called Google Play Services. The idea is to include no more code in each module than you could rapidly push across an Internet connection, says Ficus Kirkpatrick, the Google engineering director driving the development of the technologies that underpin this effort. “What is the minimum amount of code needed for that experience?”
When you get, say, that text with the 360-degree 3D photo of the kombucha brewery and tap it, the Instant App will just open, much as webpage would open via an ordinary URL. But what comes next will do more than a webpage—at least in theory. The technology underlying Instant Apps takes advantage of “deep linking,” a wider effort to link to and among apps in much the same way link tie together webpages.
You could still download the full app, if you like. But you don’t have to. If you happen to need the same Instant App in the near future, it may open even faster the second time, since Google plans on caching these app slivers in memory, at least for a while. “Our goal is to have everything be as fast as possible while using as little space as possible,” says Kirkpatrick, an engineer who has worked on Android since before the project was acquired by Google.
Doing, Not Downloading
Siliski envisions Instant Apps as functions of the services they’ll provide. He imagines them letting you pay for a parking spot in a city you’re only visiting. Or ordering a hot dog at a ballpark where you don’t have season tickets. Or requesting a song on a jukebox in a bowling alley where you only go once a year. “If you can make all that really fast, you have this thing in your hand that’s a remote control for the real world,” Siliski says.
These are all about meeting a need that occurs in the moment—that is, situations where you’re not going to want to wait around for an app to download. It’s what the apps do, not the apps themselves, that matter. You may need them, but you don’t have much reason to keep them.
And that sounds not unlike how we use the worldwide web. But that’s Google’s point: apps should behave more like webpages. And webpages should behave more like apps. At the moment, apps and webpages each make sense in their own ways. But Google is making it possible for each to look more like the other. In the not-too-distant future, both may become one.