What's Old is New Again
Google wants to make the App Store a second-class citizen. This much is clear from the features the company has been rolling out over the past few months, most notably at this year’s IO conference. Let’s take them one at a time:
Instant Apps have been around since 2016 in one form or another, but Google continues to expand the offering. In a nutshell, an Instant App lets users run an application simply by clicking on a link without ever visiting the App Store. This technology requires developers to break their applications into modular pieces of distinct functionality. Each of these pieces can then be loaded individually onto a user’s phone without a visit to the App Store. Instant Apps are also subject to a 2Mb size limit to ensure faster load times.
Slices take the modular architecture of Instant Apps one step further. They allow developers to expose discrete pieces of functionality for Android to surface to users in what it believes are relevant contexts. For example, a user who searches for a restaurant on Google might see an OpenTable “reservations” button embedded directly in the search results, allowing them to book a table without ever entering the OpenTable app.
Finally there are App Actions. These are recommendations surfaced by Android to use a particular app for a given type of action. For example, when a user searches for Black Panther, Android can expose a button linking directly to a ticket purchase in the Fandango app. It’s not clear yet whether App Actions can link to Instant Apps, but I anticipate that this will eventually work seamlessly.
I doubt that the App Store as we know it will disappear entirely: many games, for example, require large packages that are ill suited to the Instant App paradigm. Access to advanced hardware features is also restricted, though this may change with time. It seems likely that a large percentage of the use cases that take us into the App Store today will be entirely displaced by these technologies.
These features allow Google to exert more control over user behavior and app selection. App actions make Google the sole arbiter for which app wins a given keyword (AOL keywords, anybody?). They also put Google more directly involved in conversion/purchase behavior. Ultimately, they allow Google to exploit the Android app ecosystem for the Assistant and its broader voice platform.
Firms should be happy about lower friction. Proper use will likely increase conversions. However, they should also be very wary of handing over the entire customer experience to Google lest they find themselves in the same position as Amazon merchants. But that train left the station a while ago. Finally, anybody in 2nd place or lower in SEO should be terrified that they will be locked out of App Actions.