The recent wave of instant-game deployments on chat apps is yet another development, alongside bots and WeChat's "mini programs," that presages trouble for the Android and iOS native app ecosystems.
What instant games, bots, and mini programs have in common is that they don't need to be downloaded as separate apps; they are cloud-based programs that can be made instantly available within an app or website. They also tend to be deployed by leading messaging and social brands that are increasingly hogging mobile users' time.
Currently, these brands are using Android and iOS apps as the main means of delivering their services to users, so the instant apps and bots they are rolling out are essentially apps within apps confined to the native app ecosystems.
But a user base increasingly in thrall of chat and social apps could easily be swept away from the app stores by the likes of Facebook and Snapchat, should these brands decide to make mobile browsers their new home.
It's not surprising, then, that so many commentators have been sounding the death knells recently for native apps. But such talk is premature. Here's why:
The truly global chat apps, such as Facebook, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, are still far from becoming the kind of all-encompassing one-stop shop that WeChat has become in China, where users can perform a wide array of tasks within the chat app, such as play games, listen to music, hail a cab, order groceries, and book a restaurant. Many Western chat apps would like to emulate this, as demonstrated by Facebook's rollout of a chatbot SDK last year, and recent instant-game deployments by BBM, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and Telegram. However, none look likely to rival WeChat's scope any time soon – if ever.
Instant apps and bots are not solely responsible for transforming WeChat from a humble chat app to a mega-platform. WeChat's mini programs have been a bit of a flop, and chatbots on Facebook Messenger have not taken off in the way that many expected. That's why Facebook recently tweaked its SDK to allow developers to create bots with navigational menus of the kind found in conventional apps, rather than conversational interfaces. Also, the chat apps that have thus far become major game platforms – Asia's KakaoTalk, Line, and WeChat – have done so with native rather than instant games.
The new instant-game offerings give developers some advantages: the ability to develop once with HTML5 and publish everywhere and greater discoverability within chat apps than in the grossly overcrowded app stores. But, although some game studios are hailing the advent of a new HTML5 mobile games era, the thing that makes chat apps attractive to developers – their more curated environment – means that only a minority will be able to rely on them as an alternative distribution channel. And, as long as chat apps continue to form part of the Android and iOS ecosystems, much of the revenue generated from these instant games will be billed via Apple and Google.
Although instant apps might be largely irrelevant to the success of chat apps' game offerings or multiservice platform ambitions, they could offer a better user experience and, in the long run, provide messaging and social brands with more options, including making a clean break from the app stores should they wish to in future.
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