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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Apple’s new App Clips: Tiny apps you run with a tap

Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.

Apple’s conception of a table-specific App Clip Code at a restaurant.

Our world increasingly expects that we’ll use apps to interact with it, but sometimes we don’t have the apps the world wants us to have. That’s what Apple’s new App Clips feature, introduced this week and expected to ship with iOS 14, is supposed to solve. A couple of summers ago, I spent five minutes trying to download, install, and configure a parking app while standing on a sidewalk in Salt Lake City. It was frustrating. Apple’s vision is that, someday soon, I’ll be able to tap my iPhone on top of that parking meter and be on my way.

So in our great App Clip future, I’ll be standing in front of a parking meter, or sitting at a table in a restaurant, or standing outside a cafe, and there will be something for my phone to scan, whether it’s a QR code to photograph or an NFC sticker to tap or a fancy, circular new App Clip Code designed by Apple that’s both a QR code and an NFC sticker.

The act of scanning that code or tapping that NFC tag results in my iPhone opening a URL which refers it to a specific item in the App Store—a miniature app built out of a tiny part of a larger app, called an App Clip. For developers, there’s no magic to this—they have to make a smaller version of their app that’s designed for a very simple, straightforward interaction. Imagine a Starbucks app that can only place an order, or a parking app that’s only designed to let you pay at your current location.

When I scan that App Clip enabled item, a card (which developers build inside the App Store Connect website) slides up on my iPhone screen, showing me that there’s an App Clip available. An App Clip can’t exist on its own—it’s the child of a parent app that’s in the App Store. (If you have already installed the parent app, your iPhone won’t load the App Clip at all—it will just open the parent app. And if you install the parent app, it removes the App Clip and takes over its data.) Tap Open (or Play or View, depending on the App Clip) and the mini-app opens.

The point of App Clips is to be fast and easy. They install on the fly, and they’re less than 10MB in size, so they should install quickly. And this is where a couple other Apple technologies, Apple Pay and Sign In With Apple, can make a big difference. If you still need to laboriously enter in a credit card and generate and validate a new account, it’ll still take forever. But if the parking meter I’m standing in front of supports Apple Pay, and lets me create a new account with one tap via Sign In With Apple, I can load the App Clip, log in, and pay for parking in a matter of seconds. That’s the dream, anyway.

App Clips seem like they’re best when they’re as specific as possible. A chain of restaurants could make an App Clip that knows which specific restaurant you’re near, and automatically select it. A cafe could place an App Clip Code on each tabletop, and the App Clip would know what table to deliver the order to. And food-ordering apps can create custom-branded App Clips for individual restaurants, so that instead of going to your local ice-cream shop and seeing a generic Yelp App Clip, you’d see a Woody’s Yogurt Barn App Clip with a “powered by Yelp” subtitle.

Beyond using App Clips when you’re at a location, Apple says that App Clips can be attached to physical location data, allowing them to appear in Apple Maps. This would allow someone to tap an item in Maps, open an App Clip, and place an order for pick-up. App Clips can also show up automatically via Siri Suggestions, so if you’re outside your local Starbucks and it’s your usual afternoon hot cocoa hour, an App Clip may present itself entirely based on context.

Beyond the physical world, Apple hopes that App Clips will drive people out of webpages and into apps. One example given in a WWDC session this week is of an online store that offers an App Clip as a part of a Smart App Banner in Safari. You’d visit the site, tap on the resulting App Clip, and be transferred immediately from browsing via the web to via the App Clip. Obviously Apple is motivated to get you out of the browser and into an App, but it might also be the right move for businesses and users alike.

So will it work? Apple has laid the groundwork, but it’s up to app developers and businesses to take advantage of it. Google introduced something similar for Android a few years ago, and the world remained unmoved. Then again, sometimes Apple’s enthusiastic presence is all it takes for a category to take off. Even if it does, though, it might take a while. Still, the next time I’m in an unfamiliar city trying to figure out how to pay for parking, I’ll be grateful if I can take care of it quickly with just an App Clip.

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