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Death to the Download: Google Rolls Out New Way to Stream Apps From Search

The new mobile search features find apps you've installed and ones you haven't yet.

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Mobile apps can be the bane of Google — isolated spaces where the search engine does not mediate. But Google, being Google, finds a way.

The search giant’s effort here advanced on two fronts Wednesday, with new mobile features that let users find apps that are already installed and, through a novel invention, stream apps that they have yet to download. They give us a solid glimpse of how Google sees the future of our phones.

That’s important for Google given mobile’s growing dominance. Unlike desktops, smartphone navigation doesn’t typically start with a single search engine — indexing apps may be one way to replicate that primacy for mobile.

The first feature: Two years ago, Google began placing apps inside mobile search. If you built an app, Google would show it in relevant results, provided that you also built matching Web content. Quickly, this reached Google-sized scale, with over 100 billion app pages indexed, as search SVP Amit Singhal shared at the Code/Mobile Conference. Among those are pages from popular apps such as Pinterest and Facebook.

Starting today, Google will surface apps in search that have apps alone, not matching Web content. It’s starting with nine partners. (Oddly, for Google’s example, it picked last-minute booking app HotelTonight, which, last week, axed more than a third of its staff.)

The caveat here is that the apps must use Google’s app indexing API so Google can peek inside. Google probably wants the partner list to grow, yet a variety of competitors — startups like Quixey, URX, Branch Metrics and Button — offer app indexing and app-to-app traversing that can skip over Google search and don’t have its data demands.

Now the second feature: Google will let people stream apps from search results, allowing users to experience the full app sans download. This is an impressive feat! Google got a boost from Agawi, a small gaming startup it acquired last year that worked on the streaming technology. (However, post-acquisition, both of the Agawi co-founders departed the search giant, Re/code has learned.)

Here’s how it looks: Search for a hotel in a city, and you can explore the HotelTonight results from inside the search results without having to download the app.


If this catches on, it would be a win for app developers, who are desperate for new avenues to reach users.

But this has even more caveats. One, it’s starting small: The feature is rolling out with just the nine partners, and Google stresses that the streaming experience works inside search “provided you are on good Wi-Fi.” It only works on Android devices with the two latest versions of the software. Google would probably love for this to operate on iPhones, but rest assured — Apple will surely have some reservations.

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