Apple just launched a feature in iOS 14 which the market has already rejected. A brave move indeed, but this time round it’s turned into one of the most interesting features of the latest iOS 14 launch.

How it works

The concept is tiny apps which are designed to launch almost instantly. Google developed this concept several years ago as part of Android under the name Instant Apps. Nobody used them, and the idea was for a while quietly sidelined. Now Apple has redeveloped it as App Clips, and Google has rebranded their offering as Google Instant.

Here’s how it works. Imagine you want to hire a bike. By downloading the rental company’s app, the entire process can be fully automated, and you can be billed only for the time that you have the bike. Before App Clips / Google Instant, you had to go to the relevant app store, download and install the app. This could end up being an onerous task. Entire apps are often tens of megabytes in size and, without a reliable 4G/5G connection, can easily take minutes to download and install. It can even end up being expensive, for example when on a data-limited connection or roaming.

Web Apps

A possible alternative is to use a web app, delivered via the browser. But web apps are limited for other reasons – the user experience is always less than perfect and there’s no chance of anything advanced like Bluetooth connectivity or NFC.

With App Clips or Google Instant, the process is much simpler. A small part of your app can be delivered immediately, permitting the features necessary to achieve this singular task. And the user can then be invited to install the full app: if they choose to do so, it would be as a continuation of the smaller app, so they wouldn’t lose any data in the switch.

Users can pay with Google Pay or Apple Pay and get going straight away, without having to go through a registration system or over-sharing personal info. So it’s good for one off transactions, and helpful in bringing in first-time users of a service who aren’t yet convinced.

Gaming and the future

Another perfect use for App Clips or Google Instant is to deliver a playable demo of a game; perhaps the first few levels. The user doesn’t have to commit to installing the whole app or even set up a character or profile. They can be launched straight into the action, and if they like it, can choose to install the whole thing. It’s fantastic for initial user engagement.

One disadvantage of App Clips / Google Instant is that in both cases, they are delivered as part of a full app. You can’t save money by building only an App Clip – you always have to develop the larger app anyway.

In the Apple corner, App Clips are reviewed and controlled by Apple in just the same way as any other app. Despite being carefully presented as looking like they aren’t delivered through the App Store, they are really, and Apple famously allows no alternatives to this. So like it or not you’ll be subject to Apple’s often-frustrating review process, and in-app digital purchases fall foul of their 30% “tax”.

It remains to be seen whether this renewal of interest in a once-discarded idea can be a genuine game changer. But I do think that, for certain narrow use cases, it really can offer some significant benefits. Technology has moved on since Google initially developed this concept, and is now more suited to tiny apps. I’m watching this space with renewed interest.