Google rolled out a new feature that could change how we use smartphones

You might never download another app again.

Google began rolling out updates to its app on Wednesday that lets you run third-party apps without having to download them onto your smartphone.

Instead, you’ll be streaming apps over the internet.

Here’s how it works:

The Google executive in charge of app streaming, Rajan Patel, explained to TechCrunch that the streamable apps run on “virtual machines on Google’s cloud platform.”

When you use a streamable app, the virtual machines do all the processing and send data to your phone over the internet telling it what to display on its screen.

Your smartphone is essentially just a touchscreen for those virtual machines, as it no longer needs to do any of the app’s processing.

So far, app streaming only works when you search using Google’s iOS and Android app. It won’t work in your iPhone’s Safari web browser or even Google’s own Chrome web browser in Android.

And only a few apps are available to stream at the moment, including Hotel Tonight, Weather, Chimani, Gormey, My Horoscope, Visual Anatomy Free, Useful Knots, Daily Horoscope, and New York Subway. The number of streamable apps will surely grow in the near future.

Google Data Center

Google
Inside a Google data center where its “virtual machines” could be running your apps.

What does it all mean?

It’s hard to imagine, but Google is feeling left out from your smartphone experience.

Let’s say you want to book a flight from your smartphone. You’re more likely to search and book flights using the Kayak app rather than Google. In fact, you could search and book flights without even thinking of Google once.

With app streaming, Google wants you to search flights using Google, which is great for the company. It will show you all the services and their streamable apps with the flights you’re looking for in the search results.

That means you’ll get exposed to way more flight booking services, and who knows, you might find the best fare on a service that you never knew existed. And you wouldn’t be linked to a limited “mobile-friendly” version of the service’s website, you’d be running their full apps.

Streaming apps is much easier and quicker than traditionally downloading them to your device. Plus, it saves valuable space.

If this takes off, app streaming could also mean you can buy cheaper smartphone models with less storage because they won’t fill up with apps so quickly. And smartphones might not need the most powerful components anymore because most of the processing will be done by Google’s “virtual machines.”

Storage full on iPhoneYouTubeWe’ll look back and laugh at the days when we got ‘storage full’ alerts.

That also has huge implications for the developing world where relatively few people have access to internet-connected devices because they can’t afford them. Cheaper phones that are affordable even to developing countries can provide internet access to millions, if not billions, of people.

Google is already involved itself on that front with the cheap Android One devices it sells in several emerging markets. They can go for the equivalent of $US50, but app streaming can make them even cheaper.

Android OneAndroid/YouTubeGoogle’s Android ultra-affordable Android One smartphones could give many in developing countries access to the internet.

Some hurdles

Of course, we’d need the guarantee of strong cellular data connections absolutely everywhere around the world before we totally eliminate the need for downloading apps into our phone storage. That means no dead-zones. Anywhere. Ever. And it’s going to be a while until we have that.

There’s also no clear indication of how much data app streaming would use. If it means upgrading to more expensive data plans, then we might not be so tempted to try it out.

At the moment, app streaming only works when you’re connected to Wi-Fi in the US. But once we have a stronger cellular infrastructure in place, app streaming is the next big thing for smartphones.

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