Apps on demand

Apps on demand

Offering bite-sized, no-download access to key app features, streaming apps may be an idea whose time has come.
Part of
Issue 18 August 2021


Releasing a mobile app is a high-stakes competition. Although there are a combined 5.25 million apps on Apple and Google’s app stores, as of this writing, the average smartphone user has just 40 apps installed, according to research by development firm Simform. The gulf between the top tier and the underdogs is significant, and rising from obscurity to superstar success on the app charts is a difficult feat.

“Getting people to install your app is tricky,” says Guilherme Rambo, the developer of ChibiStudio, a cartoon avatar creator available on Apple’s App Store. “Some companies have this impression that just because you tell people to install your app, people are going to do it,” he says. “It’s not like that anymore.”

Even with the expansion of device storage over the past decade, smartphone users have grown less likely to grant precious mobile storage space to any old app, particularly given the amount of space-hogging multimedia the average person now stores on their device. Even if they decide to free up some space, there’s no guarantee they’ll keep an app on their device long-term and return to it time and time again. User churn is a significant bugbear for mobile developers and device makers alike: According to a 2020 report by marketing analytics and attribution platform AppsFlyer, 96 percent of users don’t return to an app 30 days after downloading it, and just one in four sticks with it after a single use. That matters because ad revenue, a key financial driver for mobile apps, is tied to the number of monthly active users who open an app and interact with an advertisement.

Which is why streaming apps, which allow users to access many of the core functionalities of a mobile app without permanently storing it on a device, hold such promise. For users, they’re not unlike the streaming platforms that did away with the inconvenience of buying or renting VHS tapes or DVDs. For software engineers and businesses, they’re a way to reach a wider, potentially commitment-phobic audience faster. 

Some developers see creating slimmed-down versions of their apps as a useful way to promote their wares, allowing users to try an app before they buy it. Others see the potential for a standalone streaming app to carry out tasks that don’t require a full mobile app experience but still benefit from a digital workaround. For example, ParkWhiz offers a streaming app that allows users to scan a near-field communication (NFC) tag and quickly pay for their parking using Apple Pay.

Google led the way in product development for streaming apps, rolling out Google Play Instant in 2017, and Apple followed suit in June 2020 with App Clips. In the world of gaming, Facebook announced cloud game streaming in October 2020. But the market for streaming apps is still largely unvalidated: Google Play Instant has yet to make waves beyond a handful of minor uses (most notably, an instant version of Candy Crush). Meanwhile, Apple’s App Clips launched in the midst of a global pandemic that meant their main use cases—allowing bar and restaurant patrons to quickly book tables and order items, or enabling people to pay for parking without downloading an app—haven’t yet been practicable experiences for many. Whether that changes as the world begins to open up—and, in turn, whether the effort to adapt an app into a bite-sized format for streaming is worth it—remains to be seen. 

Kushagra Agarwal, creator of the meditation app Unwind, was energized by Apple’s announcement of App Clips at WWDC 2020. The concept seemed tailor-made for Unwind: Rather than downloading the app, installing it, and storing it on their devices for the rare occasion they might use it, users could dip in and out, launching the App Clip from a QR code or link on a website. (An App Clip gets downloaded and stored locally on a device but is deleted after a 30-day period of inactivity. App Clips are also much smaller than a standard app, with a size limit of 10MB.) “Anyone looking for a quick mindful breathing session could open the App Clip and be done in two or three minutes,” Agarwal says.

He also saw how App Clips could be harnessed to blend the online and offline worlds. He planned to create NFC-enabled posters that could be placed in yoga and meditation centers, which “would enable guests to tap their phones on the poster and jump into a quick mindful breathing session,” he says. He hasn’t tried out this approach yet, but he hopes to do so in the future as wellness spaces begin to reopen. 

Despite the potential of streaming apps to enhance the app experience, developers who’ve considered producing App Clips versions of their products fear their hard work will go unrewarded. “I think the discoverability and distribution of App Clips is still an issue,” says Agarwal.

Ishmael ShaBazz, an independent app developer, considered creating streaming app versions of his range of productivity apps, which includes Capsicum, a notebook and habit tracker. In the end, he decided against it. In the U.S., QR codes, the predominant way to download App Clips, “aren’t very popular,” he says. “And because everyone has basically been at home [since early 2020], that frustrating pain point that justifies their use”—needing to download an app to unlock an e-scooter or order a coffee, for instance—“basically vanished during the same year they were announced.” This lack of uptake could stifle App Clips’s nascent growth.

For those who see a business value in creating simplified versions of their products, the process of retooling an app to make it streamable as an App Clip can also be onerous. Agarwal, for instance, had to trim Unwind down from 120MB to Apple’s 10MB requirement. To do so, he removed functions that made less sense for an on-demand App Clip, such as the settings and record of users’ breathing exercise history. The simplified app offers a limited range of breathing exercises. “I had to focus on the core value proposition and only include that,” he says. The paring-down process was made more difficult by the limited documentation that accompanied App Clips’s APIs in its early days, which has since been updated. As a result, “a lot of developers had to test App Clips with some trial and error,” he says.

The choices developers have to make in order to streamline their apps for App Clips depend in large part on the state of their codebase, Rambo adds. “Most apps, if they’ve been around for a while, are very monolithic, and everything depends on everything else. They’re not easy to pick apart.” They also tend to have many third-party dependencies, adding to the bloat. “If you have an app that’s not very modularized, you’re going to have to do a lot more work [to break it up].” 

Rambo was able to strip some modules out of ChibiStudio and piece them together into an App Clips version, reworking the user experience to make it more linear. “An App Clip is like a timeline of screens, basically,” he says. “Of course, you’ll have branches within that timeline, depending on what [the user does]. But it’s not like a more traditional app, where the user has a lot of options for where they can go.”

Given their scanty adoption and the challenges of condensing complicated apps into barer-bones versions, some developers wonder whether creating App Clips is worth the effort. The value proposition of streaming apps is predicated in part on a device’s limited storage capacity, ShaBazz notes. “That makes me wonder: Where are all these devices? Limited capacity was a thing years ago, but I don’t think that’s been an issue for most people for quite some time.” 

ShaBazz says he isn’t clear what problem Google Play Instant, App Clips, and Facebook’s cloud gaming are trying to solve—though he can see how they might be useful in the future, should apps continue to bloat and eat into mobile device storage. That does appear to be a broader trend: The size of games downloaded from app stores increased 76 percent between 2016 and 2020, according to mobile marketing intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

Streaming apps have so far been rolled out to little fanfare and limited uptake, but it’s too early to count this fledgling technology out entirely. Moving apps out of phone storage and into the cloud reflects a wider trend of streaming content rather than downloading it, and may become more prevalent if mobile app sizes continue to sprawl. And in emerging markets, expanding access to 4G could make streaming apps a boon for users with older or less advanced devices with more limited storage capacity. Half the world’s population accesses the internet through mobile data, according to a 2020 report by the mobile communications industry organization GSM Association, but the affordability of high-tech handsets is a primary barrier to entry.

They may not be the technology of the moment, but that doesn’t mean streaming apps’ future is foregone. “If you can provide people with a rich native experience, without having to convince them to install an app,” Rambo says, “I think that’s a huge advantage for everyone.”

About the author

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based features journalist for The Economist, Bloomberg, the BBC, and Wired UK. His first book, YouTubers, was published in 2019, and his second, TikTok Boom, was published in July 2021.


Artwork by

Lisk Feng

Buy the print edition

Visit the Increment Store to purchase print issues.


Continue Reading

Explore Topics

All Issues