Google can help you avoid downloading apps you'll only use once

Instant Apps automatically loads a chunk of an app, no visit to the Play Store required.

If you use a smartphone, you've surely gone through this experience: Someone shares something with you, or you click a link somewhere, and before you know it you're prompted to install an app. You're in a generous mood, so you go through the whole process, log in to the app, and then you're met with a welcome screen that isn't even the content you originally wanted to access! Apps are great, but the install process is sometimes pretty painful.

Google is attempting to address this issue with Instant Apps -- a follow-up to the app streaming it launched late last year. As the name suggests, these are full-fledged Android apps that can be used on your phone without having to visit the Play Store. Just tapping on a URL will trigger a quick download that's no bigger than a mobile web page, but gives you the full app experience. The install is temporary, but if you like what you see, there's a link in the corner so you can download the full version.

"The experience of apps is great, but the challenge for developers and the frustration for users is getting into the app and using it for the first time is not as great as it could be," said Michael Siliski, a project manager at Google. "The idea behind Instant Apps is instead of reducing the friction of getting into an app, how can we remove that friction entirely?"

The promise of Instant Apps was pretty clear in a quick demo I saw earlier this week. Tapping a URL linking to Buzzfeed's "Tasty" video category prompted a quick download that brought me right into that section of the Buzzfeed Video app. After doing a search for a particular camera bag at B&H Photo, tapping the link downloaded the B&H app and delivered me right to that product's page. From there, it was easy to add to my cart and buy it with Android Pay. In both cases, the app loaded just as fast as a mobile web page -- a benchmark of importance and one of the biggest challenges for the team that built Instant Apps.

"It's pretty important to us that this is an interactive-class experience," said Ficus Kirkpatrick, Engineering Director for Instant Apps, "so apps are a few megabytes -- something comparable to a mobile website. It really needs to be fast." The other big technical challenge was around supporting multiple versions of Android (and the myriad of handsets out there running those different operating systems). Right now, Instant Apps work on phones running Android 4.4 KitKat or newer. Given that KitKat will be three years old this fall, that's pretty solid support.

This feature won't be implemented in existing apps automatically, though. "One of the key things we want is for developers to not have to write another [separate] app," said Siliski. "For a developer, this is an update to your existing app." And Kirkpatrick said you could enable Instant Apps with a day of work, but he acknowledged it could take a lot longer depending on the level of complexity in the app itself. Google says it has worked hard to make that process relatively painless for developers. "Making this evolved [app] model work with the same Android APIs that developers are used to using, supporting Android Studio, all that stuff is not trivial," Kirkpatrick said.

Google envisions Instant Apps being used in a variety of ways that go beyond what we typically think of when installing apps. One good use of Instant Apps is to avoid installing apps for fleeting interactions, or for something you only need to do once. One of the demos I saw used a phone's NFC to connect to a parking meter; a pay-to-park app launched, with the meter location already loaded. All you needed to do was put in how long you wanted to park for and pay.

It's those types of apps -- museum guides, parking meter apps, even the B&H photo app -- that Google thinks Instant Apps can replace. They're tools you download and use once a week, once a month, or maybe even once and never again. Kirkpatrick called those apps not "front page worthy." Instant Apps seeks to remove the need to actually install them in the first place.

It'll be a while yet before users can give Instant Apps a shot for themselves, unfortunately. Google's positioning this as an early developer preview. The company has been working with "select partners" so far and will expand access to more developers as the year goes on. After that, consumers themselves will get to give them a shot -- that should happen before 2016 is over. But if you're tired of downloading, deleting and then re-downloading apps you don't use frequently, Instant Apps is a feature worth waiting for.

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