Published Summer, 2020

Introducing App Clips

One of the most exciting announcements from this year’s WWDC was the introduction of “App Clips”. App clips represent a novel approach to app discovery and acquisition – similar to Android’s Instant Apps. Instead of being discovered through the Apple Store, app clips are discovered through URLs passed from QR codes, NFC tags, maps, nearby suggestions, messages, and Safari links. The URL is then associated with your app clip via App Store Connect and a pop-up card appears at the bottom of the screen. The pop-up card is analogous to a regular app’s Apple Store listing. It offers the user some basic info, possibly an image, and the opportunity to load and run the app clip immediately. App clips are limited to 10 MB (megabytes) . So they are designed to install quickly. The user can then use the app clip as if it were a regularly installed app. Afterwards, the app clip binary is considered temporary by the system and will be deleted if not soon reused. This makes them, from a user’s perspective, disposable apps. The benefit to the user is that a single-use app will install quickly and then go away. It won’t permanently clutter up the user’s phone.

How App Clips Work

Under the hood, each app clip is a stand alone binary representing a subset of a larger parent app. Every app clip requires a parent app. You can’t create independent app clips. You create the app clip in Xcode by selecting out portions of your parent app and then submitting it all for review together. For best practices, Apple recommends that each app clip represent a single function from the parent app. They don’t recommend using a lot of complex navigation or menus. So, for instance, Apple suggested a use case in which a restaurant may offer one app clip for ordering food and a different app clip for reserving a table – even if the parent app does both.

App clips also come with a few limitations. For instance, app clips do not have access to persistent memory. So one should consider the app clip’s data as a temporary cache. However, there are ways to transfer the app clip’s temporary data to the parent app – assuming the parent app is installed on the device. And, as mentioned above, app clips are limited to 10 MB. So you can’t get too fancy with video or graphics assets.

On the plus side, to ease friction, app clips are able to use Apple Pay and Sign in with Apple. App clips are also able to receive notifications (with some time-based limitations). So, for instance, a restaurant reservation app clip might notify the user when their table is ready.

Apple recommends offering the user a chance to install the full parent app after the app clip has completed its function. Once installed, future app clip invocations will open the parent app instead of the app clip. This means you’ll want to keep the two experiences in sync to avoid confusing users who are familiar with the app clip, but not the parent app.

WWDC Videos
Burying The Lede

App clips offer more than just a streamlined discovery experience. One of the technical sessions (Create app clips for other businesses) suggested an entirely novel business model for selling mobile applications. They didn’t mention this in any of the other sessions. So it almost felt like they were burying the lede. They suggested a company might build a template parent app and then use it as a base to host app clips for multiple client businesses. Using multiple URLs, one could configure the template app to present uniquely configured app clips for each client. This could be a big deal going forward. Here is an Apple video which mentions this new business model.