Instead of downloading an app, you can pull up just one part of it, saving valuable space on your phone. In China, that has long been the norm.
The feature lets people launch just part of an app to complete quick, on-the-go tasks, such as ordering takeout from a restaurant or renting a bike. That means instead of downloading an entirely new app, users can launch a snippet by scanning a QR code, or by tapping a link shared via text or the Safari web browser.
For some, the concept may sound familiar: In China, the ubiquitous app WeChat has offered something similar for years.
More than 400 million users rely on WeChat’s one million mini programs daily to do virtually everything, from ordering groceries to booking a yoga class to paying bills, without leaving the app. Like App Clips, mini programs don’t take up a lot of space, so they can load quickly and minimize the storage needed on a phone. Each program takes up 10 megabytes or less, while a full-sized app typically takes up dozens or even hundreds of megabytes.
“I think everyone can see the similarities [between the Apple and WeChat systems],” said Xiaofeng Wang, a senior analyst at research firm Forrester. “In terms of consumer-facing digital innovations, China is definitely ahead.”
Apple and Tencent declined to comment for this story.
How the trend started
Some thought the launch was intended to send a message about how the Chinese company wanted to own the future of mobile technology, according to Thibault Genaitay, a former software developer who now heads China operations at Le Wagon, a coding bootcamp.
The two tech giants are not the only players to experiment with the idea.
But Tencent was the first to make it mainstream, which led other Chinese platforms to follow suit, according to analysts.
The main problem these smaller programs address is that most users no longer want to install new apps, according to Dan Frommer, former editor-in-chief at Recode and founder of tech publication The New Consumer.
Companies have realized that users want a more streamlined experience from apps, Frommer said.
“There’s a lot of friction into getting them. You have to go into the App Store, you have to search for them, you have to download them, you have to open them, you have to remember to use them,” he added. “There’s just a lot of bloat.”
“Users will be able to start and finish an experience from your app in seconds,” it says. “And when they’re done, you can offer the opportunity to download your full app from the App Store.”
Unlike with WeChat, Apple’s feature “basically lowers the boundary of downloading a mobile app,” said Wang, the Forrester analyst. “It’s like an entry ticket [to the App Store].”
‘Race’ to innovation
This is not the first time that Silicon Valley has taken cues from China, said Pocket Sun, founding partner of SoGal Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in startups in the United States and Asia.
George Yip, an emeritus professor of marketing and strategy at Imperial College and visiting professor at Northeastern University, predicts that the West is just at “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to emulating ideas from China.
“There’s still a lot of ignorance and resistance,” said Yip, who co-authored the book, “China’s Next Strategic Advantage: From Imitation to Innovation.”
David Chao, co-founder and general partner of DCM, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm with $4 billion under management, described the constant iterations as a giant game of “catch.”
“There is this catch ball going on. It’s not about one side copying another,” said Chao. “It just keeps going back and forth, back and forth. To me, that’s the most important part about the interesting innovations that go on.”