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Android instant app use cases flourish in e-commerce

Instant apps are bite-size applications that end users don't need to install to their mobile devices. Discover the pros and cons of this technology, and which use cases make sense.

BOSTON -- The marketing model of an ice cream store is simple: Customers try a taste of the product and then get reeled into buying an entire cone. With instant apps, Google encourages Android developers to take a similar approach.

Android instant apps are small portions of native mobile applications that users can access via a Google search in their web browser or Try It Now buttons in the Play store. Google made the feature available to Android developers last May, but it's just beginning to gain traction. Here at this week's Droidcon event, developers discussed the use cases for instant apps and the process of building them.

To launch an Android instant app, a user searches "New York Times Crossword" in the browser on their Android device, for example, and then clicks on a link that automatically runs a part of the Times' crossword app, -- using only the code necessary to run the specific crossword feature. Once the user is finished trying out the app, the system can erase the code.

Like progressive web apps (PWAs), instant apps blur the lines between mobile and web, taking advantage of the accessibility of browsers to make apps more discoverable. But unlike PWAs, instant apps are native containers that run like local apps, and they have access to the device's hardware.

The ease of accessibility makes them appealing to B2C businesses that want to entice users to sample and then download their applications. Enterprise IT could use instant apps to encourage business app adoption on employees' devices, but there are security concerns around the process of breaking down apps into smaller sets of code, which could result in more attack vectors.

An instant success for e-commerce

RedMart, an online grocery service based in Singapore, has a mobile-friendly website, but wanted to encourage customers to download its native Android app, said Adnan A M, a senior software engineer. The company built an Android instant app in one month, but it was so easy, it could have been done in less than a week, A M said. As a result, the company has seen more customers download the full app.

How do we construct this app so that all the pieces can be pulled apart?
Zachary Dunaiskysoftware development manager, Chewy

An increased adoption rate is one of the main goals for Zachary Dunaisky, a software development manager at Chewy, an online pet supplies retailer based in Dania Beach, Fla. Dunaisky's team is rebuilding Chewy's Android mobile app to support instant apps and make other improvements, such as rewriting the app in Kotlin.

To build an Android instant app, developers must first compartmentalize their app into smaller modules of code and refactor them into specific feature modules.

"The problem is that most people build their Android apps on a single module," Dunaisky said. "How do we construct this app so that all the pieces can be pulled apart?"

To do so, his team is focusing on cutting down app dependencies by consolidating the company's Facebook and Google analytics libraries into a single library, for example.

In addition to increased discoverability and adoption, instant apps have a variety of other advantages. End users don't need to install the app. There's no need for developers to create a separate app; instead, they can convert an existing one into an instant app. And development doesn't require specialized skills; it can be done through Android Studio.

Limitations of an Android instant app

One of the hurdles is instant apps are only available on Android, but some experts expect Apple will release its own version for iOS in the future. Users must run Android 5.0 or higher to use instant apps. Plus, developers must configure an Android instant app into URL-addressable modules that are under 4 MB in total, which often requires refactoring the app.

"Getting under the 4 MB limit is going to be tough," Dunaisky said.

An intro to instant apps for Android.

This is also an issue for Kunal Khona, an Android developer at Wayfair, an e-commerce company based in Boston. The process of modularizing their app is overwhelming, but developers are in the process of breaking it down to support instant apps in the future, Khona said.

An Android instant app makes sense for organizations that rely on Google searches to attract users, but others may not find use cases.

Charles River Analytics, a service provider in Cambridge, Mass. that does work for the U.S. Department of Defense, doesn't plan on using them because instant apps rely on internet access on the web, said Alessandro Negri, a senior software engineer.

"Most people want to have an application that works offline," Negri said. "The usability for this is very narrow."

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