The Steve Jobs Theater in Apple Park, Cupertino, was built to protect against magnitude eight earthquakes and for much of Apple’s virtual WWDC 2020 keynote, the mood was one of shielding from the real world, retreating into jiggle mode. Tim Cook, speaking from the auditorium, hailed Apple’s switch from Intel to its own in-house chips as a “historic day”, but with Zoom, contact-tracing apps and K-pop stans, he’ll be lucky if Apple Silicon features as a footnote in even the technology wikis for 2020.
There was one announcement that makes sense in a way it may have been dismissed outright in 2019. No, not face coverings for memojis in iOS 14 or automatic hand-washing detection for the Apple Watch. App Clips, which sound innocuous enough, are a new type of app lite/applet/mini app for all the times you might download an app but don’t. They’re small – less than 10MB – fast, designed to carry out just one or a few set tasks and disappear from your iPhone, along with all the data, after a few days.
The Covid-19 in-between time in which we’re living post-lockdown and pre-vaccine, could be the first time, outside Asia, that a scannable code on a table outside a restaurant, that allows you to order and pay the bill, goes from something to be scoffed at and ignored to a need-to-have. Apple demoed App Clips with ordering coffee, renting Spin electric scooters and shopping on Etsy with Spin’s senior product designer, Josh Head confirming it will be placing App Clip Codes on scooters and an Etsy spokesperson being slightly more coy, declining to confirm but saying the company was “excited to explore this opportunity with Apple”.
If it’s all as fast and low-faff as Apple says, the minimal contact with touchscreens, POS terminals and other human beings could win out. In other words, as the pandemic encourages us to adopt behaviour which has long been mainstream in Asia, such as wearing face masks in public, an Apple equivalent of WeChat’s hugely successful ‘mini programs’ and even the dorky QR code could be next.
Let’s back up. First, Apple isn’t just using QR codes to launch App Clips, though they are compatible. It has designed its own code with an NFC tag in the middle and a visual code around it. “It’s visually beautiful and distinct,” says Apple App Clips engineer Ada Chan in one of the WWDC 2020 video sessions. “Apple will be releasing tools later this year so developers can create their own visual codes.” It’s better looking than a standard QR code, that’s for sure (which isn’t saying much) but more important than the aesthetic is the experience that we have come to associate with it.
When I see a QR code in real life, I ignore it. I’m not intrigued to see what it does. I’ll scan it with my phone if I must, because some tech conference insists I do, but most times I associate them with early experiments that were all faff, no use. What Apple has recognised is that most of us also now respond this way when we see ‘download the app!’ some place in the real world. We don’t want another app, another account with all the attendant emails and alerts to switch off and unsubscribe from.
A few iOS developers are optimistic that Apple can overcome this barrier, enough that they’re willing to forego user interactions within their fully fledged app and agree to Apple’s use of Apple Pay and Sign In with Apple within App Clips. “As a startup, we want to acquire and retain our users with less friction. Though that might sound paradoxical, this includes enabling users to use our app without downloading the app,” says Imran Sheik, founder of fashion app Ombre. “The single payment option isn’t preferable, but this is better than nothing.”
“One problem with adoption may be that many users have been burned,” says Jack Nutting, lead iOS developer at Dynamo Consulting, Stockholm. “It remains to be seen whether the unique appearance of the symbol will find a place in user’s minds that isn’t muddied by their existing impressions of QR codes and NFC tags. If they can get App Clip codes to be seen as part of a smooth and easy experience, like Apple Pay, then they’ll be on the right track.”
The coronavirus factor could come into play in Apple’s favour here. If personal safety pushes iPhone owners to try out App Clips for the first time, after years of declining to use similar NFC/QR code schemes, and it works as advertised, that’s it cracked.
Developer Florian Nagel sees potential for restaurants and shopping centres, for instance, placing App Clip codes onto clothing tags to order different sizes and colours. “The Covid-19 pandemic is, from my point of view, the perfect time for such a technology,” he says. “Imagine the current situation with all this contactless communication. The sad thing is that iOS 14 won’t be available until this fall so maybe we won’t see Covid-19 use cases.” The public beta is out next month.
Sufiyan Yasa, a software developer in Amsterdam, outlined five potential use App Clip cases in a Medium blog this week, including queue skipping and Covid-19 registration for people visiting restaurants and shopping malls. That’s another feature that would seem far fetched in the before times, but in the UK proposals include registering online before going to the pub when they open in July.
Aside from scannable codes, App Clips can also be launched via a Smart App Banner in Safari (shareable via Messages), featured in Siri Nearby Suggestions widgets and when businesses appear in Apple Maps search, all of which make sense for reservations, and perhaps registrations, before you get there.
When you see how they slot into the wider ecosystem, there’s quite a lot riding on the success of App Clips, which suggest they won’t go the fizzle-out route of Google’s similar – if less real-world focused, Instant Apps. It’s a way to corner the market in IRL transactions for Apple Pay before Amazon or Facebook does.
Ditto Sign in with Apple. With its push for privacy, App Clips aren’t allowed access to health and fitness info, Music and media, voice or data from Contacts, Reminders, Files and Photos. Notifications are allowed for up to eight hours, for instance, for parking app App Clips – or, with explicit permission, up to a week for say, a car rental. Another point of difference is that aside from Siri Suggestions, App Clips won’t be bugging us with products and offers. They will be able to serve ads and recommend other apps but Apple strongly recommends doing so after the order/task is complete; they won’t be pushed automatically (for now) by Apple’s iBeacons either.
It’s also a quite obvious play for future augmented reality devices, specifically smartglasses that can scan Apple’s visual codes and show super simple, quick heads-up App Clips cards with one-tap ordering. And yes, it’s a strong case for 5G too when Apple catches up on the iPhone, possibly this September. Because if iPhone owners and businesses are onboard with code zapping, one major thing really standing in its way is patchy 4G and public Wi-Fi, sworn enemies of fast, seamless app experiences.
The Day 4 WWDC developer sessions were illuminating on where Apple expects this to go. Aside from AR and audio commentary in museums – another classic example of the failure of both QR codes and dedicated apps – one example from Grant Paul, a member of Apple’s design team, showed how a hypothetical Ice Cream Delivery app, the equivalent of a Deliveroo or Just Eat, could provide App Clips for small businesses – here Tasty Scoops – who probably don’t have the resources to build an entire app. The App Clip would use the Tasty Scoops branding so it feels like “it’s coming from that small business.”
That brings up the thorny issue of how big a slice of the ice-cream pie businesses and app developers are entitled to and how much Apple gets, with a backdrop of pushback from Spotify, Basecamp’s new email app HEY and others over the non-negotiable 30 per cent cut for App Store subscriptions.
Not only would App Clips push users towards spending their money via Apple Pay, it would push them away from even having these branded app icons on their phone, towards an Apple experience. It’s also another step in Apple’s move away from free, open, hyperlinking around the web: the whole point of App Clips is for the URL in the visual code or Safari or Maps to jump you to this “better experience” rather than a mobile browser.
So it’s a fresh test of Apple-developer relations, already strained in places. But from the user’s point of view, if they help, even in a minor way, with getting out and about in the Covid-19 in-between time, without time-wasting apps and mobile sites or potentially virus-ridden cash and cards, then Apple’s got the launch year exactly right.
Sophie Charara edits WIRED Recommends. She tweets from @sophiecharara
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