Apple never mentioned 5G during the company’s WWDC announcements today, but I think a major 5G feature is hiding in plain sight.
Apple’s new App Clips feature sets up the iPhone to take unique advantage of 2021’s 5G networks. That’s perfect for a company likely to release its first 5G phone in late 2020.
Back in 2007, Steve Jobs famously quoted Wayne Gretzky in saying “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” And the puck is most definitely going to be in 5G. Much as we debate sub-versions of 5G like millimeter-wave, the generation transition is going to be permanent and epochal.
Low-latency, high-bandwidth connections are one of the key elements of 5G that hasn’t yet been realized. The low-latency connections need standalone 5G networks, which will begin to come later this year; they will also probably need more storage towards the “edges” of networks rather than in centralized data centers, to reduce the distance data has to travel.
Once those low-latency networks take hold, though, remote storage starts to feel a lot more like local storage. In 2019, OnePlus CEO Pete Lau said that was likely to let smartphone makers develop better phones at lower cost, because things like photo and video storage could move to the cloud. But as Apple identified today, it also helps app developers get past the discovery-and-installation hump, where users don’t necessarily want to dig around in the App Store and wait for something to download to perform a transaction.
App Clips, it sounds like, are app stubs that springboard key features you may need immediately, like paying for parking or joining a local business’s loyalty program. They’re activated by scanning a QR code or NFC tag, they’re all under 10MB, and they don’t take over your whole UI or demand a complex installation process.
Apple App Clips (Image: Apple)
Google has had this function since it introduced Instant Apps in 2016. But Apple is also a master at timing. I use Android daily, but I haven’t seen a lot of Instant Apps in the wild. This Reddit thread shows that it’s a technology Google didn’t push hard, with most Android developers choosing progressive web apps instead. Off the top of my head, I can’t say why things happened that way (and it looks like the folks on the Reddit thread can’t either, other than Google’s usual hot-and-cold approach to its own APIs).
I’d posit that App Clips are just the start of a new paradigm of app development that will become richer with 5G. With App Clips, Apple developers have to start thinking about what code actually needs to reside on a device, and I suspect they’ll be handed new APIs to access executable code that lives in the cloud. As 5G networks become more widespread from 2021 into 2023 and beyond, more apps are going to start with clips.
Apple’s Sign In With Apple option is going to become critical here, too. Not hitting “install” is just one bit of friction in an app-setup process. The far bigger one is when many apps demand that you set up a new account for them, and then verify that account via email in a multi-step process. Signing in with your Apple ID, via Apple’s built-in API, would speed adoption there too.
The 5G transition is going to take years, and end users may not even notice that their apps are slowly shifting into the cloud. They’ll notice more free space on their devices, or less expensive devices because they need less storage, and they’ll notice that their experience with apps becomes more fluid, with apps flowing in and out of their lives as needed.
We’re going to hear more about Apple’s 5G vision at its iPhone announcement this September, I think. But until the 5G networks themselves provide a new level of performance at decent coverage, Apple probably won’t play the feature up. Instead, it will start shifting its developers over into 5G-friendly paradigms so that when the new networks do hit big, Apple is there.