You can load nearly any website on your phone, but apps generally offer a better user experience. Now Google has found a way to bridge the two.
Google on Wednesday showed off Android Instant Apps, a way to turn any Android program into a website URL. (It works on a wide variety of Android phones, but not iPhones.) Want to buy a camera bag at B&H Photo? In the future, you'll be able to tap on a link anywhere links are shared, and you'll be instantly taken to the shopping cart inside the company's touchscreen-friendly mobile app -- even if you've never installed that app on your phone.
"We've evolved Android apps to be able to run without the user having to install them," said Michael Siliski, a Google product manager.
Instant Apps blurs the line between websites and apps you need to download, potentially shaking up the mobile Web experience. By offering a sliver of an experience of an app, it could also encourage people to download programs they might have skipped.
An immediate benefit from Instant Apps is with mobile transactions. If you're buying a pair of concert tickets, you may not want to download an entire app. But you probably won't enjoy punching your credit card number into a poorly designed mobile website either. Instant App takes you to the app's slicker check-out screen with one tap. If your credit card is registered with Google's Android Pay mobile payments service, another tap will complete the transaction.
Imagine you're at a parking meter -- one of those newfangled, internet-connected ones that only work with a specific smartphone app. (Do they really expect you to have every parking meter app installed on your phone?) With Instant Apps, the parking meter company could create a one-use version of their app that pops up if you tap your NFC-equipped phone to an NFC chip on top of the parking meter. There's no need to download or sign up.
Google demonstrated Instant Apps at the company's Mountain View, California, headquarters last week. The company is working with Disney on an Instant App version of its Disneyland app for checking wait times on rides. Other partners include blogging platform Medium, apartment rental service Zumper, a Buzzfeed food recipe app and yes, B&H Photo.
(Ficus Kirkpatrick, the engineering lead on Instant Apps, jokes that he'll have a stack of camera bags in his office after all the demos he's given.)
The technology behind Instant Apps is actually pretty simple, according to Kirkpatrick. As long as an app developer can break their app into modular chunks roughly a few megabytes each, Google can quickly download just the right chunk of the app to a phone and run it as if it were already installed. Apps can prompt the user for permission to share their location, fire up the phone's camera, or use saved account information to log in.
It doesn't even require the latest version of Android: Instant Apps will work with versions as old as Android Jelly Bean, originally released in 2012.
For now, Instant Apps is a limited preview for half a dozen of Google's software partners, and gradually rolling out to more. Google plans to let consumers start using the first Instant Apps later this year.