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Introducing AIA: "Android Instant Apps"instant apps 300x300

It's been a while now since Google announced to the world it's intention to launch Android Instant Apps, but only at Google I/O 2017 were they officially made generally available. So what are they, and is it something Android users and developers need to know about?

It's magic

The word "instant" implies somehow getting an immediate app onto your smartphone, and that's pretty much the idea. To do that, the user would somehow have to "do something" to kick off the installation, which would then totally bypass the Play Store and quickly get it to their handset. They also don't want to be faced with a barrage of permission requests before they see anything, which is the last thing you think of with this word "instant". It might appear at first the Play Store has just become redundant, but that's far from the case as we shall see.

In a nutshell, Google has set everything up which is necessary to support this alternative installation method. The start process is a link and the instant part comes from the fact these Apps are cut down versions of the full ones. They provide the bare minimum required to provide useful functionality, and so being much smaller reduce the download time considerably. Fortunately, a few Android versions ago Google removed the upfront permission model in place of a runtime on-demand one. The way you used to have to agree to every permission an app might possibly want, all at once when you just installed the app, is a fading memory. Now we can see one of the reasons they got rid of it, because with the current method you're only asked to grant permissions to any required operations at the point at which they are actually called for. 

How have Instant Apps been implemented?

1 Installled via a regular web link

Up until now, the vast majority of Android users will have installed their Apps from the Play Store. Some will be aware they can point their browser to a link to an APK file and, after agreeing to the dire warning about unsafe operations, will probably end up with an App installed on their handset directly. Even fewer, apart from developers, will know about sideloading via USB cables. Google has always reinforced the message to users to only install Apps from a trusted source, such as the Play Store. Instant Apps breaks that in some ways, because now a regular link can be used to install one. Users can send each other emails with links in, websites can have "try now!" buttons, search results on google.com can be crafted to kick off the download directly, rather than take the user to a webpage in their broser. The whole process of "checking out" Apps really just became much more frictionless. However, there are some serious implications for this which will be covered shortly.

2 They aren't full Apps

The "instant" part is actually hiding something - it means the user isn't getting a full app. It's a much smaller version, which means the download and install is much quicker. Whilst this might give developers a headache, from a users point of view they will see App "lite", a version which might superficially appear to be the same as the full one but will usually be missing some pretty major functionality. An example might be a video viewing app - the core part to view the videos might be present, but all the rest of the App such as editting, sharing etc wouldn't be. The branding, look and feel and user flow would mimic the main App as much as possible, but it just isn't the real deal. No doubt the App designers will be doing everything they can in an Instant App to get the user to install the full version.

3 Permissions

As already covered, Android moved away from asking for permissions at App install time a few versions ago. With Instant Apps, some permissions could be asked for immediately anyway. Think of a camera app, which when launched went straight into picture taking mode. This wouldn't be much use if the users didn't grant the camera permission, and since it was needed right from the start it would, in this case, be asked for "instantly".

Wider implications

So another way of describing this is to say Google just made every link on the web a way to install Apps directly onto Android handsets. That ought to set alarm bells ringing - we've had years of clever ways people try to get users to click on malicious links. Also, Google has the "bouncer" in the Play Store, which sniffs out malware preventing it from being downloaded in the first place. Is it wise to cut these safety measure out of the process at this stage?

Already ads serve malware via Apps: https://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/3011565/self-downloading-adware-targets-android-users 

It's also worth thinking about what made Google all that money which enabled it to create all this technology in the first place - ads. Ads which contain links. You can see where this is going. If clicking an ad actually installed an Instant App rather than took you to a landing page in your browser, the App could provide a much richer experience and therefore engage the user at a deeper level, if done correctly.