Android Instant Apps: What are they and why do they matter?

Last year at Google I/O, Google made perhaps what was the most important announcement of the entire conference, Android Instant Apps. Since that announcement, a lot has happened on the Android Instant Apps front.

In late January, Google made it known to the world that the first handful of Android Instant Apps, which included notable titles like Buzzfeed and Periscope, were entering the crucial testing phase. Fast-forward to 3 months ago, Google made Instant Apps available to all developers around the world. Just last week, an update on the Android Developers blog noted that half a billion devices were now supported for Android Instant Apps.

Wait a minute, what the hell are Android Instant Apps?

Well, to answer that question, think for a minute about instant coffee. I am no coffee expert but instant coffee is simply coffee that you can prepare in a heartbeat. That (preparation) may not be exactly the case with Android Instant Apps but if looked at from a user interaction point of view then it’s pretty close. Instant Apps are simply lightweight versions of an already existing Android application that are launched when one makes a Google search and clicks through an appropriate link without necessarily having that application installed on their smartphone. Only the specific bit of the app required is loaded.

Take for instance if you went to search for “Raila Odinga periscope” on your Chrome mobile web browser. You will get several search results from Google. One of those will include a direct link to some of the past live broadcasts on the Raila Odinga channel on Periscope. Since the veteran Kenyan opposition leader’s media team effectively used Periscope in the just concluded General Election’s campaign season, you will find yourself watching one of his many speeches at political rallies across the country in no time. All this without having installed Periscope, the live broadcast app from Twitter. That, simply, is an Instant App.

According to Google, Instant Apps are native Android apps that run, well, instantly, but without installation.

From a user’s end, there’s nothing they need to do. The device they’re using to access Google services like Search only needs to be one of the 500 million currently supported. (Instant Apps are supported on devices running Android 6.0, Marshmallow, and up. Support for devices running Android 5.0, Lollipop, is on the way). Bonus points if the user lives in one of the 40 countries where Google has activated Instant Apps for all users. A spot check (by doing this) on the various Android devices at my disposal easily reveals that Kenya is not one of those. In fact, other than Periscope, which seems to strangely work as an Instant App, I have not been able to launch any other Instant App. That’s because there is a process to go through before that happens automatically and we in Kenya are currently locked out.

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What matters is what an Android app developer does to the code base of their already existing native Android application. The onus is on the developers to reuse the code from the installable application that they have listed on the Google Play Store to come up with the lightweight Instant App that lets users access any content on their apps without necessarily installing the app.

Since for most people search means Google and Google means search, Instant Apps provide an easy way to convert more users i.e. make them start using the main app since the Instant version certainly includes a call to action to download the app from the Play Store. It also means that a developer or development house stands to gain from the increased traffic and awareness created in having an Instant App that appears at the top of Google search results. These are likely to be users who would never heard of or tried out the app otherwise since apps, as we currently know them, are only great if you are already a user. Not a user? No way to know what’s going on or access any of the features and information contained in the application.

Why Instant Apps matter

The biggest case I can make for Android Instant Apps is that, for those of us who already have a gazillion of Android apps installed on our devices, they present a unique new way of consuming content and accessing information without overwhelming our already struggling devices with yet more apps we are only going to use once every one or two months.

For instance, fun as their listicles may be, I am not so keen on a lot of the content that Buzzfeed produces daily to warrant having the Buzzfeed app installed. Neither do I do any live broadcasts (my life is boring, thank you very much) to need Periscope’s ever presence on my app drawer. As such, being able to check out the latest Tasty Buzzfeed video or catch up on a NASA (Kenya’s main opposition alliance) press conference without having to install either of those two apps, is a big plus for me and definitely something I hope more and more app developers activate on their apps.

Android Instant Apps enable Android applications to run in response to a user clicking a link, without installing the app

I recently gave a talk on the Android platform and ecosystem to anxious students at my alma mater. This is what I told them: think of Instant Apps as the way Apple’s iTunes changed music or how we access video on demand content like the upcoming boxing bout dubbed “The Money Fight” pitting pound-for-pound king Floyd “Money Bags” Mayweather and UFC champion Conor “The Notorious” McGregor. For those who don’t subscribe to ShowTime for their shows, they have an option of paying (per view) to watch just that one fight that the world is holding its breath for. The same thing about iTunes music. Instead of buying an entire music album as you would in the 90s, you simply pay a small fee for what you want to listen to. This is not the most straightforward example but it gives you a rough idea.

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I already have lots of interesting usecases for Android Instant Apps for popular Kenyan apps. Searching for consumer electronics on Google and then being presented with results from either Jumia Kenya (which is already doing well with Progressive Web Apps) or OLX from where you get the full Jumia Kenya or OLX app experience without having to bother downloading and installing either app (I hate both because, the ads!).

Another example: It’s not everyday that I am travelling to a different part of the world. So it makes little sense to have to go to great lengths to install travel-related applications for just a 3 or 4-day trip half-way around the world. With Instant Apps, I just Google my intended query, pick out TripIt get sorted and leave, without adding more clutter on my phone. Instead of being redirected to the barebones mobile website, I get to experience the immersive confines of the nice TripIt app without having the app. Something like having your cake and still eating it. Apps are there when you need them and gone when you don’t.

Instant Apps are bound to get even better with the arrival of Android Oreo.

There is a downside to Instant Apps, though. Since they are not substitutes for the full-fledged versions of the app but merely fronts meant to get you going, they don’t have things like background activity, necessary for push notifications. If your Android device has features like a fingerprint sensor then you’re not able to use it with an Instant App. The same applies to features like Bluetooth. To be honest, I can take that, any day.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at]