Americans have dozens of apps installed on their smartphones, but according to recent research, we spend most of our phone time -- 80% of it -- using only three of them (I can personally attest to this).
What happens to the thicket of apps that barely get any play time? They take up space on a user's device -- and in a crowded, competitive mobile app market, that space increasingly comes at a premium.
"Users may have reached a point of saturation where they resist downloading more apps," Raul Castañon-Martinez, senior analyst at 451 Research, said in an email.
Google has taken note. (When doesn't it?)
On Wednesday, the search behemoth announced that it's experimenting with how its search engine displays content found on Android apps: If Google Search turns up app content that points to a mobile app a user doesn't already have installed, the user will see an option to "stream" the app right from the search results page. These streamed apps aren't actually the mobile Web versions of the apps; the apps themselves technically run on Google's cloud servers.
Currently limited to nine apps (see sidebar), Google says it will see how users respond before continuing to expand the app-streaming capability to iOS or internationally.
Advances in mobile deep linking
This isn't the first time Google has tinkered with how its search engine deals with non-Web data, or data that is found inside of mobile applications.
Before its new app-streaming feature, Google Search had already been able to access Android apps and index app data that were written in a way that exposed their internal metadata. Developers building these apps just had to use mechanisms that provided information from deep within the app, a process called "deep linking." If a user search turned up content pointing to data within an app they had not installed, Google provided a link to download that app.
Google recently extended its search engine's in-app indexing capability to include iOS apps, using the deep-linking capability of iOS.
"Google and Apple are quickly realizing that for a lot of folks, especially on some lower-cost devices, space is at a premium, and so let's not just take up that space because you needed a one-time experience," said Michael Facemire, principal analyst at Forrester Research.
By offering the new app-streaming service, Google is giving itself a door into the mobile ecosystem and making moves to reinforce its search hegemony, which has taken a hit with the advent of mobile, said 451 Research's Castañon-Martinez.
"This move, though not a checkmate, does give Google an edge over its competitors, including iOS and search engines like Yahoo and Bing," he said.
With the new app-streaming service, Google wants to bring the benefits of Web search to mobile phones. One way it might be able to do that is by changing how users split their time between their desktops and mobile devices when doing certain tasks, said Castañon-Martinez.
For example, if users wanted to search for restaurant reviews or reservations, they would most likely do so on a desktop: Search results take users directly to the Yelp or OpenTable website pages with the relevant information, so navigation is smooth, he said. However, "if you used your mobile phone to search for a restaurant, the results you'd get were for the mobile Web, not the Yelp or OpenTable mobile apps already on your phone. That meant searching on Google, finding the restaurant you liked, then opening the Yelp or OpenTable apps and typing this information," a process that is more cumbersome for users, Castañon-Martinez explained.
But with app streaming, Google hopes to bring these tasks, which were previously more effectively done on a desktop, into the mobile ecosystem, he said.
Furthermore, by letting app-overloaded users access certain types of content without having to download the apps themselves, Google is "reducing friction," or the time it takes for users to get value from app content after clicking on it, Castañon-Martinez added. For some users, streaming the information rather than downloading the app will be sufficient.
In turn, the option offered to users by this new search capability gives companies and developers a new way to be discovered and to engage with their customers -- in particular, those that are not seeing many downloads on the app store but have highly functional apps (apps that display a list of things or forms with which a user interacts), Forrester's Facemire said.
Take Hotel Tonight, one of Google's nine launch partners. The company's app shows last-minute hotel deals. The app is highly functional, according to Facemire, because even if Hotel Tonight's list takes a half-second or even as much as two seconds to load, it provides value to the user in real time without taking up real estate on her phone.
"For someone like Hotel Tonight, before [the announcement], I would have never installed their app on my phone, simply because if I needed to book a hotel -- in the very few times that I need to do it -- I would just go on the Web or maybe call somebody," said Facemire.
Goodbye, native apps?
Will app streaming do away with native apps? Facemire doesn't think so. For instance, high-fidelity apps (e.g., Angry Birds), which are dependent on a good-quality wireless connection, might experience latency issues if you stream them over a network connection. There are also those apps that people use a lot and rely on to be instant.
"When network speed slows down, it will slow down my entire app experience, as opposed to when the app is installed natively, locally," Facemire said. "There will always be an experience penalty that gets paid."
There are also the technicalities around what developers need to do to enable streaming, as well as the nuances around authentication and security, but Facemire believes that over time, Google will begin to address those issues.
CIO news roundup for week of Nov. 16
More technology headlines from the week:
- The deadly attacks in Paris, Beirut and other cities have revived the long-brewing debate between government agencies and technology firms on the role encryption plays in terrorists' and criminals' operations. To recap: Law enforcement officials want a "back door" into encrypted devices; Silicon Valley says "no way."
- If there's anything more stressful than shopping for Christmas presents, it's doing your shopping on Black Friday. But IBM says Watson has got you covered. On Wednesday, the company unveiled the IBM Watson Trend mobile app, which determines general consumer reactions to a particular product, as well predicts if it is likely to sell out, by scouring millions of online conversations on social media sites, blogs, forums, comments, ratings and reviews.
- CEO Satya Nadella said in a speech to government tech workers in Washington that its bad reputation for security vulnerabilities is behind it. He said the company has revamped its security posture and its corporate structure to make its products harder for hackers to infiltrate.
- Oxford Dictionaries unveiled its Word of The Year this week -- and it's not a word. The honor went to an emoji, "Face with Tears of Joy," which, according to keyboard app company SwiftKey, made up 17% of all emojis used in the U.S. A sampling of words that made Oxford's shortlist: Dark Web, on fleek and lumbersexual.