Google’s Instant Apps for Android – Run apps without installing

Anyone with a smartphone will recognize it; when you just got the phone it comes with a handful of apps, but after a few months the amount of apps on your phone has exploded. It is not that you use them all regularly, often these are apps that you install for sporadic use and then do not remove.

Google unveiled a solution to that problem at its I/O developer conference in the form of Android Instant Apps. This technology allows apps to run on an Android phone, without installation. An Instant App can be started, for example, by opening a URL or by being near a Bluetooth beacon. According to Google, Instant Apps are ideally suited for situations in which you only want to use an app once.

One of the demonstrations we saw at Google was built around a parking meter. By holding the phone against the machine, a payment app was started via a built-in NFC chip, after which it was possible to set the number of parking minutes and pay via Google Pay. During that process, the app was not installed on the phone. Once the payment was complete, the app disappeared from the phone. We were able to go through this ourselves on more than one occasion and what was particularly striking was how quickly the Instant App started; it didn’t take more than two seconds.

What will happen more often is that a user receives a link to a website that also has an app. If Instant Apps is on, the mobile version of the website will not be opened, but the app will be downloaded in the background and immediately executed. This can be useful if the app offers more functionality than the website, such as integration with a camera or sensors. You don’t have much choice here at the moment; either you give Google permission to open Instants Apps if there is an option, or you turn off the entire feature. Google is investigating whether they can further refine the settings for this.

One last implementation we were able to test revolved around location. It is possible to use bluetooth beacons to send a message to a phone that is near a certain place. In the case of this demonstration, the user was simulated to be in Disneyland and standing at the Splash Mountain attraction. A notification gives you the option to start the Splash Mountain app, which contains more information about the attraction and also shows the current waiting times.

The advantages of Instant Apps are clear: compared to mobile sites, you can use much more functionality, such as integration with Google Maps, the camera in the phone and various sensors. In addition, native apps often work more smoothly than mobile sites. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits is that in practice people will have to install fewer apps on their phones, leaving more space for media and other things, and less memory will be used.

It also gives developers an option to let users know that they have an app in addition to a site. Developers can also include an Install button so users can install the app directly on the phone. However, in our opinion, Google should give the user even more control, for example by asking for approval before starting an Instant App instead of a website.

Running an app this way should be just as safe as installing it. Apps that need permissions will simply ask for it with a pop-up, as we’ve been used to since Android 6.0. For older versions of Android, where you normally approve permissions when installing an app, Google has a work-around that gives you the same kind of permissions popup as in Android 6.0. So you don’t have to worry that an Instant App will gain extensive access to the phone without permission.

Build with modules

The technology behind Instant Apps is based on the idea of ​​app modules. Currently, Android apps come packaged in an apk file, and installation downloads and installs that entire file. With that working method, apps are too large to be loaded on the fly , as is the intention with Instant Apps. Google has therefore developed technology that allows developers to divide their apps into different modules. For example, the main screen can be a module, while the settings screen is another separate module.

You won’t notice this when you use the app, but the technology behind Instant Apps allows it to download only the parts of the application that are needed. If you navigate within an application and you come to a part that has not yet been loaded, the required module will be downloaded from the Play Store and displayed. Google says it’s fairly easy to break existing apps into modules, and most apps can be made compatible in a matter of days.

That modular approach can also make apps less taxing on a device, especially when it comes to memory usage. Particularly with apps that consist of many different screens and parts, where there is a small chance that you will use them all every time, the memory consumption can be reduced considerably by dividing it into modules.

For almost everyone

Usually, for these kinds of new features in Android you need the very latest version of the operating system, but Instant Apps will work on version 4.3 and newer, because the underlying technology is packaged in the Play Store and Google Play Services. That means that more than 95 percent of current Android phones can handle it, and that increases the chances that developers will get to work with it. Google has not yet ventured into a precise release date, but the development team hopes to release Instant Apps this year.