Over the past year, Google has tinkered with several methods for blurring the lines between mobile apps and the mobile web.
It's going full-court press now. At its I/O developer conference, Google unveiled an ambitious new feature that lets Android apps send users to specific parts of their app from any web link, even if the user hasn't downloaded the app.
Apps, in essence, become just like the web.
And Google loves the web. The feature is designed for app creators pining for ways to attract and retain audiences — more people may be inclined to try an app if they don't have to go through the download process. Of course, it's also designed to let Google protect its mobile fortress, web search, from a full-on consumer shift to apps.
It's called Instant Apps, and works pretty much like it sounds. Developers fetch a source code from Google that enables them to open specific content within their apps, instantly. While this is different from Google's efforts to do app streaming inside search, it's in the same spirit — and gives Google similar access to previously walled-off data inside apps.
It's limited to Android devices for now. But, critically, it's going wider than many new Android features. That's because Google is making it work on all phones that run Jellybean (the software introduced in 2012) and later versions, avoiding the limited distribution trap that many new Android products fall into.
Google tested Instant Apps with a few partners in retail and media, including Medium and BuzzFeed. Here's how the feature looks with BuzzFeed:
And here's how it looks with B&H, the equipment retail outlet:
That latter is probably more valuable to Google, because if retailers find they get more engagement on apps from search and websites, they will be more engaged with Google search and the web.
The feature does pit Google more squarely against startups working on similar "deep linking" tech. The largest, Quixey, has struggled. Deeplink, an Israeli startup, claims its linking tech is synced with 12,000 apps; another one, Branch Metrics, says it has 10,000 apps signed up, nearly double what it had in January when it raised $35 million.
URX, another deep linking startup, is now part of Pinterest. Then there's Facebook, which is luring developers to build apps for its commerce platform inside Messenger. Finally, there's Apple, whose ambitions around search and app linking are anyone's guess.
Google said it is expanding access for the Android feature "later this year."
"This is a big change, so it's going to take some time," wrote Suresh Ganapathy, a Google product manager, announcing the product.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.