It’s no secret that everyone on the Cartogram team is a big fan of Google’s new Android feature, Instant Apps. Since mobile browsers are always a few years behind in terms of their ability to programmatically access smartphone sensors and features, users have been forced to install apps to get the most cutting-edge functionality. Google’s initiative with Android’s Instant Apps aims to buck the trend and enable your mobile browser to leverage the same powerful user experience as a native app, without actually installing the app. Kind of.
Actually, Google DOES install an app, but the duration of the install is supposedly limited to the time it’s being used. The difference is really in the user experience of how this app gets onto your phone. Instead of downloading an app on Google Play, the app is presented to you in your Google search results similar to the way that current apps are displayed.
It’s still pretty early and Google hasn’t provided much in the way of details in terms of how to use the new feature (which is currently in beta).
This post isn’t meant to be a thorough explanation of how Instant Apps works. It’s also not a developer guide (still waiting for Google to share this). Instead, it’s meant as a how-to guide for those who would like to try out Instant Apps today. Here are a few notes:
- At the time of writing, Google has indicated that Android Instant Apps is a feature which is available for a few apps which have partnered with Google to test the feature. These include Viki, Buzzfeed, Periscope, and Wish.
- There is no official list of support devices at this time. This guide was created using a Google Pixel (which happens to be one of the Cartogram team’s favorite devices for testing inertial indoor positioning).
- Google has noted a 4 MB limitation on the APK size, but I suspect that this may change over time. They’re probably limiting the size to improve responsiveness on first launch of the app, but 4 MB seems pretty low. We would like to see it increased to 15 MB.
The first step is to trigger Instant Apps to download and install on your device. Instant Apps is presumably a system app that manages the persistent app data stored on your phone and the permissions associated with each of the instant apps. You’ll know whether Instant Apps is installed by going to Settings->Google and checking if there is an element titled “Instant Apps”. If not, then you’ll likely have to upgrade your OS and/or security patch. The update that triggered the Instant Apps installation for me was an update that installed security patch level February 5, 2017. Also note the Android version of 7.1.1, but it’s unclear what the minimum required Android version is.
Once your system has the prerequisites for Instant Apps, you’ll trigger something like the following screenshot:
Then, head over to your Settings and toggle Instant Apps. You’ll get a dialogue like this:
Even though there are four apps being listed by Google as Instant Apps compatible, I was only able to make “Wish” work, despite running searches on the other three apps. To trigger Instant Apps, open your Chrome browser and search for “Wish Shopping Made Fun”. You should notice something slightly different about your search results:
See how there is an “Instant” tag next to this particular listing? You may have to scroll through a few app options before you get to it. After you click on it, the Instant Apps system app (which you enabled earlier) will engage and ask you if you want to open the Wish website, of if you want to use the Instant App. To use the Instant App, tap on “Open App”.
This will open up the app, which looks and feels like the regular Wish app. Pretty cool. The same user experience without the clunky Google Play installation.
I was curious about how the data and user permissions were being managed. It would be a poor user experience if the user had to explicitly enable permissions (like those required for BLE positioning or your camera) every time they used the Instant App. This is why Google stores settings, permissions, and maybe even the apk on the device. Here’s what that looks like:
Why are we so excited about Instant Apps at Cartogram? Really, it’s about covering as much ground as we can in terms of providing optimal value and experience for our customers and their visitors. Cartogram provides several platforms to help visitors find their way indoors and our native app SDK is only one of them.
For instance, one of Cartogram’s new services is an SMS chatbot, which enables anyone to send a simple text message in the format “Where is <X>?” to a phone number or short code displayed throughout the building. Cartogram will respond intelligently with details about where the search element is inside of the building, and even provide a link to an indoor map which can be opened in the user’s mobile browser – no app required.
We see Instant Apps as a natural evolution of these core technologies we’ve built at Cartogram. Android Instant Apps may enable the Cartogram team to take this experience to the next level and redirect our customers’ users to the native Cartogram experience.