• Facebook and WeChat are developing app-like experiences that run within their massively popular messaging apps.
  • The aim is to overcome apps’ challenges with user engagement and retention and break Google and Apple’s app duopoly.
  • At stake is a market that’s projected to grow to $102 billion by 2020.

It’s getting harder to convince people to download and use mobile apps. By the end of 2016, only 33% of US, UK, and China smartphone users used six to 10 apps each month, down six percentage points from the prior year, according to a Gartner survey. But messaging apps are thriving amid this engagement crisis.

Not only do chat apps have massive reach, but users also launch them more than twice as often than other apps, according to Flurry Analytics. And app publishers and developers are seeking to tap into that engaged audience by creating stripped-down, app-like experiences that run inside chat apps themselves. These "mini apps" will allow users to make payments and purchases, share files, and interact with virtual assistants powered by artificial intelligence (AI), just to cite a few examples.  

This shift could usher in a "post-app" era, which could transform the way consumers access the internet and digital services. Mini apps are built on the HTML5 mobile web standard, which means they don’t need to be downloaded, freeing up space on users’ phones and providing a highly engaging environment that keeps users within the chat app they’re using.

Mini apps are cheaper and easier to develop and maintain than native apps that run on smartphones’ operating systems and are typically downloaded from app stores. That's important because the return on investment for developers of native apps can be questionable. In the US, for example, the average app can cost around $270,000 to develop, according to Formotus. But users on average spend roughly 85% of their time in in just five apps, according to comScore. That means lots of money has been wasted creating apps that never became "must-haves" for many users.

Although they have a long way to go in terms of both capabilities and adoption, mini apps have the potential to disrupt the app ecosystem.

Chat Apps: Mini Apps’ Launch Pads

WeChat and Facebook Messenger are leading the charge when it comes to mini apps. And while they share a common goal, there are key differences in their strategies.

WeChat started trialing “mini programs,” [...]