Will Google’s New ‘App Streaming’ Kill App Downloads?

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Complaining that the world of apps was not enough like the web, Google, Facebook and others sought to enable deep linking within apps. Apple has recently joined the party as well.

In one way this makes great sense. Deep linking and app indexing allow users to access and discover content within apps or go directly to relevant “pages” within apps. Previously users were sent to the app homepage or, worse, to a download page.

Before deep linking and app indexing, the shift from the PC to mobile apps threatened Google’s position at the center of the internet user experience. Rather than navigating to desired content via Google, as users generally do on the desktop, they could go directly to their favorite apps. Google was often left out of the equation. For many publishers this was also an opportunity to establish or, for some, reestablish an “unmediated” relationship with users.

To be sure, search is vigorously used in mobile (now more than on the desktop). Still, the mobile user relationship to Google, especially for iPhone users, was different than on the PC. Deep linking and app indexing have started to change that and put mobile search back in the center of the user experience.

In classic Google fashion the just announced “app streaming” is both a great user-experience innovation and a highly self-interested move:

[Y]ou’re also going to start seeing an option to “stream” some apps you don’t have installed, right from Google Search, provided you’re on good Wifi. For example, with one tap on a “Stream” button next to the HotelTonight app result, you’ll get a streamed version of the app, so that you can quickly and easily find what you need, and even complete a booking, just as if you were in the app itself. And if you like what you see, installing it is just a click away. This uses a new cloud-based technology that we’re currently experimenting with.

As Danny Sullivan writes, this is a beta test with a small number of app-developer partners right now. There are 9 partners, including The Weather Channel and Hotel Tonight. Danny has other details, such as the capability will only work over WiFi and on Android devices for now.

I have not yet had a “hands on” experience with app streaming but it promises to deliver the content and functionality of apps via search results without the need to actually have the app on the phone. The benefits for mobile search and Google here are obvious: it will make mobile search more useful and more encompassing as a content discovery tool for mobile users.

From a publisher-developer perspective one argument in favor of app streaming is that it’s like SEO in a way and a new way for users to discover apps and app content. The hope would be that after deeper exposure they’ll download the app directly. And that may well be.

It’s also possible that users may be less inclined to download new apps because they’ll be able to access in-app content via mobile search. Storage space is limited and most installed apps are used only occasionally. Thus users may be disinclined to install new apps because they can access them as needed through Google. (This is an “empirical question” that will be answered over time if the program expands.)

Google, for some of the reasons above, has always been highly ambivalent about mobile apps. In the beginning Google saw apps as a kind of bridge between the desktop internet and the new mobile internet. Google’s Vic Gundotra (no longer there) and others such as Tim O’Reilly argued that the mobile web would, of necessity, inevitably supersede apps.

That didn’t turn out to be the case. In fact things went in the opposite direction; apps became much more popular and much hand wringing ensued. Google and others have now intervened to change things (Steve Jobs may not have been as eager to do app indexing). Some go further to argue that Google has been working “to make apps obsolete.”

Between deep linking, app indexing and now app streaming Google is making more apps more accessible to more users and improving the mobile search experience. But it is also partly undermining the app user proposition and reinserting itself between users and publishers.

Whether you see a benevolent objective (improving the mobile user experience) or a primarily self-interested one depends on how you view Google. I believe that both motivations coexist in app streaming.

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