It’s an app for everything these days. But until now, the primary way to discover and try all of these apps has been the same: to visit the App Store. In iOS 14, it changes significantly. No, you will not be able to install apps from a third-party store that some companies request, but apps move beyond the App Store in a different way thanks to App Clips.
App clips are small pieces of apps designed to be discovered not in a digital store, but in real environments through NFC codes and QR codes. You can find and use app clips elsewhere as well, such as Safari, but the real discovery methods on the go are the most exciting aspect here because of the convenience they promise.
We have probably all found ourselves in a situation where we need an app for a specific single use, but may or may not need the app again after that. An example when visiting a new place is the transaction of paying for parking. Without an app clip, such a circumstance would mean that you search for and download an app, then create an account in the app and enter your payment information to complete this single, overly painful transaction. An app clip would be perfect for that situation, as you could just hold your iPhone up to an NFC tag, use Apple Pay to pay the parking fee and be done. This kind of situation on the go is where App Clips really shines.
App clips are starting to arrive today with iOS 14’s debut. Here’s what you can expect from them and why they are a potentially transformative technology.
Let me first explain how app clips work.
Behind the scenes, every app clip, no matter how you access it, is called for via a URL. That URL loads a map that describes exactly what the app clip will do if you use it and provides the ability to open it. App clips must be less than 10 MB, so that the experience of loading the app clip will be felt immediately when you press the open button.
As I mentioned, there are a number of ways to access app clips. You can find them through:
- Scans NFC codes or QR codes in nature.
- Apple Maps lists, where the App Clip buttons appear next to the blue directions button for a place, and offers, for example, a quick way to place a mobile order at a restaurant before you go there.
- Safari-smart banners, like the banners that advertise a web page app but are linked to an app clip instead.
- Links sent to you via messages, perhaps because an app used app clips instead of the default URLs for when users share content.
Apple is also developing its own physical tag called the App Clip Code, but it will not be available until after the first iOS 14 launch. App clipping codes can either be tapped or scanned, and combine the benefits of both NFC and QR. They also have a clear design, so if you see an app clip code, you know there is an app clip available there; Standard NFC codes or QR codes, on the other hand, need additional verbiage explaining that they contain app clips, otherwise users would not know until they tried them.
App clips can only be created by developers who already have a full app, because they are actually mini-versions of the app that was removed to include a limited set of functionality – although developers can still use the usual toolkit available when building complete apps, and system options such as Apple Pay and Sign In with Apple are encouraged where applicable. The basic concept is to provide an experience tailored to the user’s exact needs at a given moment.
To explore this design in practice, let’s use the Starbucks app as an example.
App Clip Design
Starbucks’ app offers five different navigation tabs – Home, Scan, Order, Gift and Offer – each containing a lot of functionality. It’s great for someone who is familiar with the whole app, but throwing all these options in front of someone who is not familiar with the app will not be a good experience when they are on the go and ready for coffee. Starbucks may want to create an app clip that just takes the order tab and removes it to exactly the options that need to be there.
Ideally, one would access such an app clip via an NFC code or QR code at a given Starbucks location. If the App Clip is configured specifically for that location, there is no need for users to select a pickup location for the order – if you interact with a physical tag at a specific location, you will obviously order there. The app clip also no longer needs a favorite part, since favoritism is better suited for the entire app than a one-time transaction; the previous part should be deleted for the same reason. All that will give you in the App Clip are featured items and a way to search and browse the entire menu. These things can fit on a single screen and offer a simple, streamlined way for people on the go to order. After selecting your favorite drink and / or pastry, the user could pay with Apple Pay, and the entire transaction would be over in seconds. The app clip can then present the ability to download the entire Starbucks app, and tell the user that they can earn rewards if they do.
Apple wants developers to go through exactly this type of thinking experiment when it comes to building app clips, with regard to use cases and drilling down to the minimum functionality required for a given task. Everything promoted must go. App Clips’ 10 MB limit is not only for fast downloads, it also serves another purpose of forcing developers to thoughtfully and intentionally streamline the user experience.
I have tested app clips that make it possible to quickly log water intake (WaterMinder), perform a breathing exercise (Unwind) and more. None that I have tried are designed for the on-the-go scenarios I have outlined, but they still show the principles of being light and uniquely focused, and show the potential of such app clips to help app adoption. ChibiStudio, for example, has an app clip in beta that allows users to create their own chibi without having to download the entire app, which eliminates an important entry barrier. If the user likes the experience, they will probably download the entire app afterwards – which can be done from ChibiStudio’s app clips with a single tap after sharing or saving the chibi.
Although ChibiStudio is not the type of app I expect to meet an app clip for in the real world, it is a good example of how app clips can also work as a way to try an app. From a developer’s point of view, the main purpose of app clips is available via Safari or Messages – they give users a chance to discover your app in a new way, with minimal commitment required. The hope is then that users download your entire app and become a loyal customer.
With this perspective in mind, I’m surprised Apple did not integrate app clips into the App Store and bill them as examples. Just like how to download free sample titles in Apple Books and then purchase the full title in a seamless process, App Clips can give a nice taste of whether an app is for you or not. To experience an app’s core functionality and user interface without annoying account creation or login screen in your way, would be great. I would be interested to see if Apple moves in that direction in the future.
There are a number of other interesting details about app clips that are worth noting.
Notification rights. App clips can send alerts for up to eight hours after you open them without having to ask permission. Such alerts can let you know that your order is ready at a restaurant, or that your parking time is almost up. If an app clip has to send an alert for longer than eight hours, it can request permission to alert for up to a week. This extended permit can, for example, be useful for parking garages.
System requirements. All iPhones running iOS 14 support app clips, but the experience with NFC codes will vary depending on the model in use. Newer devices, such as iPhone 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max, XS, XS Max and XR, can read NFC codes automatically. With iPhone X, 8, 8 Plus, 7 and 7 Plus, users must first turn on NFC scan mode from the Control Center before NFC interactions work. Apple’s documentation is not aware of the location of the iPhone SE.
Frequent use. Normally, an app clip is meant for a single transaction at the time of use, so iOS takes care of deleting the data from the device for a while after you use it. If you use the App Clip regularly and do not download the entire app, iOS will learn to keep the App Clip on your device and may even start suggesting it in the Siri suggestions found in Search and the new widget.
App clipping unnecessary. If you are in a situation where you are accessing an App Clip, perhaps via an NFC tag, and the App Clips full app is already installed on your device, you will press the Open button to open the entire app instead for App Clip. If everything works as it should, you should be taken to the part of the app on which the App Clip is based, and offer the exact functionality you were looking for even though you were in the whole app.
When iOS 14 is released today, many of the features will be immediately available to all users. Widgets will be brand new and able to live on the home screen, iPhones will be able to make Picture in Picture video for the first time, and there will be many updates to built-in apps across the system. Many third-party apps will be ready with new widgets and support for new iPad app designs. On day one, we begin to get a sense of what new features are a hit for the masses and which fall a little flat. However, app clips will take significantly more time to measure because their success or failure depends on the physical business adoption.
The number of companies that make app clips and show them in physical locations is someone’s guess. App clipping codes, which will not be available until later this year, are unfortunate as they provide the best experience for users, so hopefully Apple can get them in corporate hands soon. But in any case, it can take a while before the average user encounters an app clip in the world.
If app clips take off, they should serve as a seamless way to complement physical experiences with digital convenience. And who knows? Maybe in a few years we will have AR glasses that will make it easier to detect and interact with app clips.
App clips are a daring game for the future, but we have to wait a while to learn their fate. Will they become ubiquitous, or end up with a failed experiment? Only time will tell.
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