Everything You Need to Know about App Clips

Apple’s App Clips are the digital version of a foot in the door

If you build an app, the odds that anyone will find it in the App Store can be quite small. Your code swims in a sea of millions and, unless someone is searching for the service, feature, or distraction you built, they might never find it, let alone try it.

Apple App Clips on an iPhone

Apple’s new App Clips, which arrive in the fall on iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, sound like a way to raise a tiny hand up from that ocean, wave, and maybe be seen.

When Apple introduced App Clips (not to be confused with Apple's short video app, Clips) during its WWDC 2020 keynote on Monday, there was some confusion. Are these full apps? Are they web applications? Do they live on the phone or in a browser? How, exactly, can you run an app without installing it? In order:

  • No
  • No
  • On the iPhone and iPad
  • You are installing (part of) it

While the concept of App Clips—pieces of apps instead of full ones—may seem radical, it's pretty straight forward.

App Clips are basically single-purpose-pieces of app code that live in the same cloud as regular apps.

You don’t search for App Clips; they find you. Sort of.

Where’s My Clip?

Arrive as a local shop or even, perhaps, a chain like McDonald’s and you might, someday, see one of Apple’s new App Clip codes. These are Apple’s version of a QR code, but in a more pleasing, almost Apple Park-like circle. Like a QR code, you still point your iPhone camera at it, which reveals a URL that launches the App Clip. App Clips will also work with regular, somewhat uglier, QR codes.

You’d see an App Clip Code is because you’re close to the place where you can use that bit of code. Because App Clip codes include NFC technology, you can tap your NFC-enabled iPhone (all models since 2014’s iPhone 6 have it) to install and launch the App Clip even from a locked screen.

Apple App Clips at work
Apple App Clips at work.  Apple

Since location matters, these App Clips links could eventually be embedded in Apple Maps as clickable cards, which means you could load and use the App Clip before you arrive at your destination and have that hot cup of coffee waiting for you.

The point is, there will be may ways to access these mini apps, but you will not see them in the App Store, and there’s a good reason for that.

Pieces of a Whole

App Clips are not full-blown apps, but they are part of the complete app developers are already building. They’re literally built in the same XCode 12 project (previous versions of XCode do not support App Clips) as your primary app.

App Clips’ core limitation is size. None can be larger than 10MB. Otherwise, they can include virtually any feature you would have in a complete app, including augmented reality. Developers can even build a special in-App Clip card that explains why you might want to upgrade to the full app.

Developers will submit their App Clip code to Apple for review right along with the complete app.

Examples of what an App Clip might do include:

  • Buying a cup of coffee at a Starbucks without grabbing the whole Starbucks app
  • Renting a Spin scooter for one ride without the full app
  • Playing chess against a friend without downloading an entire chess app
  • Buying one thing at a superstore through an App Clip

App Clip codes could also appear on products themselves. Instant Pot, for instance, is putting a code on its products that, instead of forcing consumers to install the complete Instant Pot app, lets them launch directly into an Instant Pot recipe.

Do It All

Even though App Clips are pieces of apps, they will not be constrained to a single experience for all locations. Yelp, for example is looking at building out App Clips for shops that use its service. Again, this allows customers to bypass installing the Yelp app and, when they search and find a Yelp link to, for instance, a pizzeria, they might be able to choose a pie, order it and pay within a Yelp App Clip for the restaurant.

Safari search results could have a Smart App Banner that links to a relevant App Clip.

App Clips
A search result in Safari could include a Smart Banner that links you to, in this example, an App Clip for an Etsy Store.  Apple

Apple also made the clever and obvious choice to incorporate both Apple Pay and Sign-in with Apple for these App clips. While it’s unlikely that App Clips will try to force sign-up for an app experience you probably won’t keep, it’s nice to know that you don’t have to add your email and create yet another password for what amounts to a piece of an app. Sign-in with Apple lets Apple create an identity and password within the Apple sign-in ecosystem that you don’t have to know, see, or manage.

Using Apple Pay, which you can accomplish through your phone or Apple Watch, is another way of compressing the entire experience into a handful of taps and gestures. App Clips will, just as with a complete app, support other payment options, but not in-app purchases for digital features that only relate to the full-blown app.

Why is Apple Doing This?

Part of it is obvious. This is a virtual way for developers to get their foot inside a customer’s door, for their apps to be discovered. Someone could use an App Clip, be satisfied with the experience, but not download the complete app, but I think Apple and developers are betting on a lot of conversions.

First, there’s the basic discovery of an app you might not even know existed, and if the developer has done their job with strong visuals and the successful completion of a single task, someone might just choose to download and launch the whole thing.

But Apple knows that won’t always be the case, which is why I think they also developed a Recently Used App Clips area in iOS 14’s new App Library.

My hunch is most people will use these clips quickly and then forget about them until they visit the same store or service again. At that point they might dig into the Recently Used App Clips area and relaunch the mini app or share it with someone else over Messages. They might also then choose to finally download and install the full-blown app.

App Clips do not live forever. After 30 days, the 10 MB wonders quietly disappear from your phone.

iOS 14 (and iPadOS 14) is still months away from release and developers are just now learning how to write XCode projects that include App Clips. In other words, how well these digital calling cards work for developers, which kinds of apps and experiences they’ll work for, and if they’ll even work for app consumers, remains to be seen.

For what it’s worth. Google launched a similar program, “Google Play Instant,” in 2019. The try-before-you buy app program hasn’t made much of a ripple on the Android ocean.

Still, Apple’s App Clips is a fundamental shift in iOS app development that breaks app experiences free of the App Store and literally puts them in front of your eyes. It’s the virtual made real and, possibly, a big opportunity for developers and better, faster, or at least different app experiences for consumers.