Android Instant Apps and the web

Warning This article was written over six months ago, and may contain outdated information.

Today’s Google I/O keynote introduced a new technology called Android Instant Apps. In a nutshell, Instant Apps displays a small, focused portion of an app when a user clicks on a related link — even if the app isn’t installed on their system. The example used in the keynote was the Buzzfeed Video app: when a user clicks on a URL to view a Buzzfeed video, and doesn’t have the app installed, the URL is intercepted by the Android system and opened in a part of the app, delivered from the Google Play servers, rather than in a browser.

Instant Apps requires the app creator to build their app in a prescribed way, using deep linking and setting up modular views, but it apparently only takes about a day to modify an existing app to work in this way. There are still some unanswered questions about Instant Apps, not least in regards to whether their use is optional.

This certainly solves the biggest problems with apps: having people find them, and install them. And from the perspective of the user it probably makes no difference if they fulfil their task through the medium of a website, app or Instant App — provided the medium is seamless to transition, fast to load, and focused on the task.

But for developers, an Instant App doesn’t seem to offer much value beyond a website: as it’s an Android-only service, the URL that launches it can be shared across iOS and desktop also, meaning there is still a duplication of effort to build that web presence.

So then what’s the incentive of putting in the extra work for Instant Apps? Perhaps it exists only when the app can offer something that the web is unable to, such as access to system-level APIs (like payments); or perhaps when the web alternative isn’t optimised.

Otherwise this seems like it’s a drop-in replacement for the web; and, as Klint Finley said when discussing the conceptually-related universal links on iOS:

If you want apps that work like the web, the web is still your best choice.


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