So it was WWDC this week and Apple as usual announced a tonne of new things for their suite of products. For me one thing stuck out: App Clips.
These are small applications that have a focused bit of functionality that can be activated from NFC, QR, or basically anything that links to a webpage with a specific meta tag. Stop me if you have heard this before?
This has of course been possible for a while through QR codes and NFC tags which can open a web page when scanned.
Before I continue, I should probably say I have been an advocate for the web and PWAs (progressive web apps) since you could add websites to the homescreen on the iPhone. Back then you couldn’t do anything apart from open a website full screen (without the URL bar).
This always made sense to me, as most applications which show a list of data (like Twitter or Instagram), I always thought were better off as web applications mostly because the work needed to develop a native application for iOS, Android, and at the time Windows Phone.
Obviously now we have tools like React Native, Flutter, Ionic and others. So developing a cross platform app isn’t that difficult, however you still need approval from App Stores, and if you want to monetise these apps chances are you will have to surrender 30% (see the recent HEY controversy). There are companies that get around this, but usually at the expense of the user experience; Netflix and HEY for example allow their users sign up on their websites to avoid this “tax”. Anyway, I digress; back to App Clips.
The announcement of App Clips took the wind out of my sails: I finally admitted defeat. The lack of support on Safari for things like push notifications make certain application types — like messaging, amongst others — redundant. The cynical part of me thinks that they know how this would impact their hold on the app market, but they do a fantastic job of protecting users from dark patterns, and let’s be honest who isn’t sick of seeing that “this website would like to send you notifications” banner. Unfortunately I think this practice ruins the legitimate reasons for using them.
Recently I was talking about hanging up my web dev boots and changing into native development, as I want to make cool things but I don’t want to be restricted by the technology and the things I want to build require functionality that just isn’t there on the web on Apple’s mobile web, and I don’t see it being added anytime soon.
I started looking into Swift and SwiftUI to start with, and how to actually create App Clips, and I realised that this could actually work in the favour of the web. If Apple can get people in the west to start scanning things to interact with them, then this benefits the web in the end, as these things will still open a website if you’re not on an iOS device or the website doesn’t have the correct meta tag, you will still be taken to the website. I think App Clips will actually promote creating “micro interactions” (as I have started calling them) which will be a focused interaction that will require minimum effort. For example, if you were renting a scooter, you could scan the code and have it open a URL with the ID of the scooter, and be directed to a method of payment. This could still have a Google and Apple pay button so it requires very little input to start riding the scooter. I know this might not be what a lot of businesses want, as people are in the data game, so they would prefer you to sign up, but that is another can of worms that I don’t want to get into right now.
So I probably did overreact to this announcement, I do think that App Clips are over-engineered, when the web exists, but Apple do have a habit of normalising things that are often seen as too techy initially. So I do hope they take off as it can only benefit the web. Once this interaction is normalised then why would you invest in creating a specific App Clip when you can create a website that more or less does the same thing? Invertedly I think Apple has possibly given PWAs a new lease of life through focused interactions.