Apple and app streaming: Unlikely, but never say never

Strategic reasons are lacking for Apple to mimic Google's experiment with app streaming, but Cupertino may be pushed to follow suit

Apple is unlikely to follow Google into app streaming unless the model gains significant traction with consumers, forcing its hand, analysts said today.

"It's clear why Google is doing this," said Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw Research, in an interview. "One reason why it's investing so heavily in app indexing, and now streaming, is that it reasserts the dominance of the Web and search. But that doesn't apply to Apple. Having said that, when someone goes first, then Apple may follow suit. And Apple's not against being later to market rather than first."

Dawson was referring to Google's announcement last week of streaming a small number of apps from search results pages. When users search using the Google app on recent editions of Android, they may see links to content available only in mobile apps like those from Hotel Tonight, The Weather Channel and Chimani. If the app is not already installed on the device, users can stream the app -- Google runs the app in a virtualized environment on its servers, pushing the results to users with a strong Wi-Fi connection -- to get the content in the app's user interface (UI).

Another step in Google's two-year project of indexing in-app content -- and as Dawson noted, part of the Mountain View, Calif. company's long-range attempt to keep people on the Web, where search can be monetized -- the streaming model has been widely seen as having the potential to upend how apps are delivered.

Where currently it's necessary to install an app to get to its content, even for a one-off look, streaming would surface content through search, then stream the app and its content to a device temporarily. It's similar to the difference between downloading a track or album from, say, iTunes, and streaming the same music through an on-demand service like Spotify or Apple Music.

Some have forecast that, assuming app streaming takes off, Google could lower the walls that now not only separate the at-large Web and the various app ecosystems, but also barriers that blockade each ecosystem from its rivals, giving users access to apps they never have installed, and probably never would.

What's to prevent Google from streaming iOS apps, for example, some have asked.

"If Google is already indexing both iOS and Android apps, and can stream apps (at scale) from virtual machines running in their cloud, what stops them from streaming iOS apps to Android users (or vice versa)?" wondered Sameer Singh, an analyst whose musings appear on Tech-Thoughts, in a piece published Thursday.

"From Google's perspective, there's no reason why they wouldn't attempt this at some point," Singh said in an email interview. "This approach (if implemented at scale) would immediately render the 'iOS First' philosophy moot. iOS developers would be quite happy to get access to a massive user base with no additional development costs."


"I think you'd tend to get a lowest-common-denominator approach," countered Dawson, talking about the habit of some cross-platform developers to craft generic apps that, because they need to run and sport a similar user experience (UX) across all devices, eschew OS- or device-specific features.

The bigger question, though, was whether Apple -- and the far-behind, in-third-place ecosystem of Microsoft's Windows -- would follow Google into app streaming.

Dawson approached the question by looking at the strategic underpinnings of each company. "Does this model also serve consumers well? Or is this like so many efforts, from Google and other companies, primarily aimed at serving internal objectives and counter to what consumers want?" Dawson posed in a piece he posted to Tech.pinions the day after Google's announcement.

Dawson argued that while there were clearly some "consumer-friendly" benefits to users, there were also disadvantages, including the requirement of a strong Wi-Fi signal and substantial bandwidth. But overall, he saw Google's strategic rationales for app streaming as dominant. "Google's motivations behind app streaming are clearly driven, in large part, by its strategic imperative to feed the Web rather than native apps," he wrote on Tech.pinions.

"As long as [Google] can look inside apps and enable discovery, their monetization engine will remain strong," said Singh. "In fact, based on the amount of money that's spent on user acquisition, I'm sure Google views app advertising as an incredible revenue opportunity for them, [either] app-installs or app-streaming, whichever route developers pick."

And therein lies the answer to whether Apple would follow.

"Apple doesn't have the same strategic reasons to go down this road," said Dawson. The Cupertino, Calif. firm's app-centric model, which has been in place since 2008, serves Apple's overriding goal -- selling devices -- by promoting high-quality, often-iOS-first, even iOS-only, software.

Singh was just as sure as Dawson that Apple would steer clear of app streaming if it could. "I actually think Apple may be motivated to avoid this approach entirely," he said. "I'm a believer in business models being a strong predictor of company decisions. And it's in Apple's interest to keep as much intelligence on the device (their profit center) as possible."

That's not to say Apple wouldn't consider app streaming, whether a knock-off of Google's approach or something different, if users are attracted to the concept.

"If Google gains traction with app streaming, [Apple] might have to consider some sort of response," Singh said, speculating that the latter might extend the "peek" feature in iOS 9 on the newest iPhones to deep-linked apps that appear in the results of an in-iOS search using Apple's Spotlight. "I'm not sure if they would be willing to go any further than that."

"I wouldn't be surprised if Apple and Microsoft get on board somewhere down the line," echoed Dawson of app streaming, citing one reason Apple might experiment with the technology: storage space.

"From a storage perspective, [app streaming] would be one way to get around the limitations of some iPhones," Dawson said, noting that Apple has already pushed several initiatives -- the effort overall has been labeled "App Thinning" on iOS 9 -- including app slicing and on-demand resources, to address the small storage allowances on low-end devices. It could pitch app streaming as a further step in that strategy, coming full circle with placeholders on an iPhone leading to streamed apps, much like the 2007 iPhone took users to Web-based apps before the advent of the App Store.

But the row could be hard for Apple to hoe. "More generally, this is about delivering services, something that Apple has struggled with," Dawson said.

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