Instant Apps: What Are They?

Just imagine, you’re searching for a place to spend your next vacation with your friends. You just found it on your favorite application, and you want to share it with them. You send them the link using the share button. When your friends click the link on their Android phones, it magically opens in the same application, although they didn’t install the app. Have a look at the trip I found for my next vacation (demo: works only when clicking via Chrome on Android 6 or later with Instant Apps enabled. To enable Instant Apps, go to Settings > Google > Instant Applications).


InstantTrip Demo


Native application discovery is very low, on the contrary to websites. That is one of the main issues of current native applications. How many new apps do you install on average on your smartphone? Probably less than one per month. Making native applications available through simple URLs makes them much easier to discover, it becomes as simple as opening a new website. Also, only the features you are using are actually downloaded, and not the entire application.


So how does it work? The application is split into feature modules, each of them URL-addressable. A feature generally serves one purpose, like sending an email, finding a restaurant or showing the latest news. For each feature, there is an APK (installation file for an Android app), downloaded on demand when clicking on the corresponding URL, and launched as an Instant App. It remains in memory only for a limited time after you finished using it, which makes Instant Apps convenient for single-use features.


If you followed Google I/O 17 you’ve probably already heard about Instant Apps. It was actually introduced at Google I/O 16, although at that time it was only a demo. Then Google opened the Instant App SDK (Software Development Kit) to 50 major application companies like Pocket, Vimeo, Stackexchange and others, of which Instant Apps were launched in January 2017. The SDK was finally made available to all developers during Google I/O 17, so that everyone can now develop and publish Instant Apps.


50 instant apps launched in January 2017


So do we still need the Play Store to install applications on our Android phone? Yes, definitely. As a matter of fact, an Instant App can only be deployed if the corresponding installed app is available on the Google Play Store. The purpose of Instant Apps is not to replace but rather to extend the possibilities of installed applications. It’s intended to provide with a simple click features which don’t require the application to be installed (and possibly propose to the user to install the application if they wish to use the remaining features).. It opens a lot of opportunities and becomes very powerful when combined with beacons or QR code, for ordering in a restaurant, visiting a museum, paying a car park, and so much more.


For those interested in developing Instant Apps, you can have a look at the demo project shown above or the codelabs from Google.


Jean-Baptiste Vincey
Android Developer at Backelite