Not many people know this, but Android was a vision long before it hit store shelves in America with the T-Mobile G1 back in 2008, and it wasn't always Google's. Back in 2005, Andy Rubin created Android Inc. with the goal of providing 'apps for mobile'. Back then, the Internet was a very different place, and while speeds were getting quicker and quicker both inside and out of the home, the idea of doing much more than say email and messaging on your phone was novel to say the least. What Rubin and the founding team of Android Inc. had in mind was to create a platform that would allow 'apps for mobile' to be available across different phones from different manufacturers. It was a big deal, and as Apple proved with their later release of the iPhone, apps and games were the big push that smartphones needed to hit the mainstream. Since then, the Android Market has evolved into the Play Store and Google's Android now has over 80% of the global market, with their eyes set firmly on emerging markets and 'the next billion users'.
With faster internet connections have come big changes for the entertainment industry and nothing has felt this as much as the music industry. After surviving the piracy years of Napster, Limewire and more, the music industry has had to accept streaming as their only hope. Spotify and the like aren't exactly pleasing everyone in the industry, but it's abundantly clear that people aren't prepared to pay as much for music as they once did. Netflix and Spotify have shown the true power of the Internet, both at home and on the move, and it appears as though mobile apps are headed in the same direction, especially if Google have their way.
Last month, Google announced that they were experimenting with streaming apps right to your phone with 'app-first' content found through the Google Search app on Android. Right now, this works with just a handful of apps, but it's an exciting precedent and if anyone can pull it off, it's the company responsible for developing Android. If someone were to search for something, they're likely to come across content from an app that they don't have installed, leading them to a fork in the road; they can either make do with a mobile website or head on over to the Play Store and wait for the app to be installed and start from scratch. This is a scenario that Google wants to eliminate, by offering people the ability to stream an app to their device, they get the experience that they were looking for without breaking the flow and with little to no hassle. This is a win-win for both Google and the company behind the app you're streaming, and it could be the biggest change in mobile for a decade.
There is a reason that Spotify, Netflix, Hulu and co. have become so popular, their experiences are predictable and simple to use no matter where you're using them. Netflix is the king of this. If you have a Smart TV there's a good chance that you have a Netflix app running on said TV and there's an even better chance that it acts just the same as the app on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or whatever else. Imagine having a similar experience with an app on a smartphone. Let's say that you want to Google something on someone else's phone – maybe yours is dead or you're an incredibly lazy human being – and you come across a link to an app that this person doesn't have on their phone. You have to install the app and do the process again or get the app setup from scratch, not so in Google's vision for apps of the future. In this scenario, it wouldn't matter which phone you were using, as long as it's got a speedy connection and is running Android your friend is guaranteed the same experience as you are. This is powerful stuff.
For users like you and I, being able to get the information we need from the app without having it installed should be a lot quicker as well, and as software like Android itself gets bigger, storage is at a premium. Do I really want these small apps taking up something like 15MB on average each time I search for something new? No, there's no point to using up that extra space if I can have the app I need right now at my fingertips and as someone that has an unlimited data plan I may as well make use of it and start using my 4G connection for better uses.
From a business perspective, mobile apps and games, in particular, have become big business. If you needed any evidence, Activsion (the people behind World of Warcraft and Call of Duty) recently purchased Candy Crush developer King for a mind-boggling $5.9 Billion, yes, billion with a 'B'. The reason that King and other developers creating games like Candy Crush, Game of War and others have become successful is through in-app purchases. Love them or hate them, in-app purchases have taken the mobile world by storm, and it's hard to find games in the Play Store that don't have them nowadays. It's simple science, people don't like paying for something upfront, especially if they have little idea of what it's like and it's a hell of a lot easier to get someone hooked on something for free. As a user, you are more likely to pay for an in-app purchase, making somewhere between $10 – $20 a purchase, than you are to pay for something outright.
Google's vision for apps of the future might seem to go against this, successful model, but in-app purchases are mostly for games. Games make their money from asking players to purchase more weapons, in-game currency or whatever else, whereas apps quickly run out of opportunities to ask users for more cash. Let's say I'm a developer of a simple, yet popular, Android app and I charge $0.99 for the app upfront or the same as an in-app purchase to remove ads and upgrade. This is a reasonable price for my small app, and yet if a user pays this $0.99 this is the first and last 99 cents I might see from this user.
This is where the whole 'streaming apps' concept could become a big deal. If we take the Spotify analogy again, and say that Spotify pays rights holders something like 0.0050 per stream and a song is streamed 1 Million times that equates to $5,000 or so. Imagine for a second, if Google or whoever, started paying developers 'per use'. This would allow these developers worried about getting $0.99 or so just once from a user, and providing free updates, they would get a reward each time the app was used. This is perhaps a long way off and also something Google might not ever consider, but these are the sorts of questions that come to mind when thinking about streaming apps in this manner.
If we stick with Google's current use case however, this puts a lot of the control in Google's hands. Your app or service needs to be indexed well by Google and if for whatever reason Google decides that your rival is offering something better, then their app would be first, and we all know how big a deal that is. If you're the first listing on Google you are essentially king for those few seconds while a user weighs up their decisions. If an app is above yours in some app streaming list put together by Google, then it's bound to get the Lion's share of "uses" or "streams". There's an argument that Google already has the control now with the Play Store, but there's a lot a developer can do outside of the Play Store to promote their app or game right now.
Control is of course something that Google needs and wants to keep. If they can keep you on the web, thats better for them in a lot of ways. Google make a lot of their money through advertising, but if this new approach to consuming apps takes off then they're presumably need to charge app developers for hosting their app. That gives them both apps and ads all in one place, making it even easier for the search giant to make money off of unwitting users.
All of this is a lot of "what ifs" right now, but it's interesting to see that the technology exists and that it could, one day, become a reality. Google has already proven that it can do a hell of a lot using their cloud infrastructure, and this is a company that has come up with countless ideas over the years that seem before their time. Perhaps in a year or two we'll be looking at stats for "per stream" rather than ad revenue and in-app purchases. Either way, the mobile world is set for a big disruption in the next year or two, and developers better be ready for it.