On the morning of March 19, Jonathan Karmel, a product manager at Google, took the stage at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to announce a new service for gamers called Google Play Instant.
Rather than having to search for games in the Play Store and then download them to their device, users could immediately begin playing select titles like "Solitaire" or "Pac-Man" online from within the Play Store, saving them time as well as space on their phones. All they had to do was tap "Try now."
The morning after his presentation, an email landed in Karmel's inbox from Jonathan Zweig, whose start-up, AppOnboard, was doing the same kind of work, providing software so that gamers could live demo a mobile game before installing it. Zweig hadn't attended the keynote, but he read Karmel's corresponding blog post.
"We love it," Zweig wrote to Karmel. "Are you free for 30 mins this week? We are all here at GDC."
"Does 3pm today work?" Karmel wrote back.
That meeting kicked off a five-month project between the two companies to expand the "Try now" option and make it available for hundreds, and eventually many thousands, of apps.
On Thursday, that technology went live. Developers such as Jam City, publisher of "Cookie Jam" and "Panda Pop," and Scopely, the creator of "Looney Tunes: World of Mayhem," are using it to launch games faster and make them quickly accessible to more users from within the Play Store. The games can download in the background, so once users have tried them once, they'll be available as an app on their phone — just like any other game.
The way Zweig sees it, the Play Store is just the start of this rollout for Google. He said the company has alluded to its plans to have game demos show up across multiple properties, so a user could eventually play a demo of a game next to a YouTube video or alongside search results.
If Google's "Try now" button takes off, it could undercut one of the biggest pieces of the mobile ad market: app install ads.
In the U.S. last year, companies spent $7.6 billion, more than double the amount two years earlier, on install ads, according to eMarketer.
The purpose was to promote their apps on Facebook, Google and other mobile apps and websites so that a small percentage of viewers would click through and download them.
But if users can demo and play games directly within the Play Store and a lot of other places, there's less reason for game developers to spend money on ads that push users to download the games.
That may stand to benefit Google in the long run. More than half of the consumer dollars in the app economy go toward in-game purchases of things such as virtual goods or jumping up a level. Google keeps 30 percent of the revenue from these purchases, which are available across more than 2 billion active Android devices.
"A light bulb went on for Google as well as for us," said Zweig, who co-founded AppOnboard in 2016, two years after selling his previous company, AdColony, for $350 million. "If all the money is being made from in-app purchases and subscriptions, why do you even need the friction of the storefronts or the installation itself?"
Zweig said AppOnboard started its work with Google by making App Store demos for the top 200 app developers in the world and has most of those ready today. Developers who wish to use the demo engine on their apps can visit AppOnboard's website and go through a few integration steps.
Jam City said that in its early test of AppOnboard's technology, about 30 percent more people were still playing "Cookie Jam Blast" after a week compared with those who used a traditional install. That's important because over 20 percent of consumers abandon apps after a single use, according to mobile app marketing firm Localytics.
Google didn't make Karmel available for an interview. However, the company provided a statement from Ben Frenkel, a product manager who also presented at GDC and is part of the 10-person team working with AppOnboard.
"We're excited to bring AppOnboard's app demo technology and support to Google Play Instant to help improve app discovery for game developers and publishers like Jam City and Scopely," Frenkel said.
Google has slowly been making moves away from app installs for the past two years. It first introduced Instant Apps at the 2016 Google I/O developer conference, allowing a few apps focused on things such as real estate, shopping and news to launch when tapped and without a download.
For games that are heavy on graphics, Instant Apps are still a challenge because they have to be stripped down to meet the Play Store's limits and so they can launch quickly. AppOnboard's technology was designed to address that very problem.
Up to this point, most of AppOnboard's revenue has come from playable demos, or short pop-up games that users can play on iPhones and Android devices instead of watching a video ad. The 62-person start-up in Santa Monica, California, has also developed augmented reality-based playable ads for Apple's ARKit.
AppOnboard is giving its demos engine to developers for free for 30 days and then charging a subscription. Bryan Buskas, AppOnboard's chief operating officer, said that pricing depends on things like the amount of support and number of apps, but starting packages start at around 1 percent of monthly app revenue.
Zweig declined to say if his company was working on a similar project with Apple. But he expects this announcement to be the first big step in a major shift in how consumers access and play mobile games.
"We're transitioning people into a world where they can play an app or a game and not really worry about the full install," he said. "And companies are willing to pay to bypass that friction."