In 2015, Google proposed an exciting new approach to app development, which would revolutionize the way that people access the web from mobile devices. They dubbed this new method “progressive web app”, or PWA.
This concept brought a great deal of buzz at the time. Developers and users alike were excited about the prospect of a seamless interface that brings together the best aspects of both native mobile apps and the web. However, as with many things, the initial hubbub died down to the point where the vast majority of the non-developer community has probably forgotten all about the acclaimed new frontier of Progressive Web Apps. For those of you in this boat, here’s a quick refresher:
What are Progressive Web Apps?
A Progressive Web App is essentially an app within your browser, which uses modern web capabilities to deliver a user experience and interface very similar to that of a native app. PWAs may reside on your home screen like native apps, but because they are accessed directly through your web browser, they don’t need to be downloaded or installed.
PWAs were born from the advancement of modern web browsers, and have become comparable to native apps in many ways, thanks to a few key advancements:
- App manifest and home screen install support: This allows PWAs to appear on your homescreen with a native install banner, just like the native app banners we’re used to.
- Service Workers: A Service Worker is a script that works behind the scenes, and independently of your app. It powers offline functionality, push notifications, content caching, and a whole lot more. By pre-caching your key resources you can free your app of its dependence on the network, which will allow for an instant and reliable end user experience.
- App Shell: An App Shell is simply a design model where there is a basic “shell” of the app’s UI which loads more quickly than the actual content. All this really does is improve the user’s perception of the speed and performance of the app but the improvements in load times are noticeable.
So now that we understand the basic functionality of PWAs, let’s get into the benefits that they can bring both businesses and their users.
The Benefits of PWAs
- Save time, money and effort: Possibly the most notable of the advantages to PWAs is that developers no longer need to create different apps for different mobile platforms. Because of this, a progressive web app can help a business quickly reach the maximum number of people possible across all desired platforms with much less development effort.
- People are Impatient: Much of the success of PWAs can be attributed to the increasingly impatient nature of society. It’s been shown that an app loses an average of 20% of its users with every step between the user’s first contact with the app and when the users actually begin to use the app. Yeah, you read that correctly…20% of people will see an app they like and never use it because they are just too impatient to wait for it to download. A little sad, right? Well…not if your app is a PWA. Because PWAs are technically websites, they don’t need to be downloaded at all, so you will keep those users who would otherwise abandon ship instead of installing the app.
- Reliability: Because of the aforementioned Service Worker, PWAs will load instantly regardless of the network connection.
- Seamless inter-app experience: Because PWAs are already in your browser, clicking a link in an app or switching between apps would no longer kick you out to open a new browser. From a user’s perspective, this is probably one of the biggest benefits of PWAs.
So, What are the downsides?
We’ve talked a lot about the many benefits to PWAs, but as with most (relatively) new ideas, there are still some shortcomings that need to be ironed out with PWAs.
- It’s still early: Though the benefits of PWAs are pretty significant, they have still only been around for a couple of years and users and developers alike are not totally used to this new concept. In 2016, native applications accounted for about 87% of all mobile internet traffic. This huge entrenched user base deters many companies from feeling any pressure to switch to PWAs. Also, many developers are already well versed in multi-platform native app development and may not want to change their development processes and workflows in the short term.
- Limited compatibility with hardware features: PWAs have a limited ability to integrate with many of the hardware features of smartphones and tablets, including NFC and Bluetooth functionality as well as the device’s sensor package (accelerometer, fingerprint sensor, etc.). This means that, as of now, PWAs cannot be developed to work with any mobile accessories and “wearables” like smart watches, fitness trackers and wireless earphones.
Progressive Web Apps are definitely an up and coming new frontier for mobile web and apps. They have numerous benefits including increased reliability on any network, more ease of use, and much less development time and work. Additionally, the mobile environment is shifting to include more and more users who are able to access the internet from mobile devices in developing countries. These users’ connectivity is mainly going to consist of 2G and 3G networks that are spotty at best, or almost completely absent at worst. This, along with limited storage are upcoming issues for many users which can be addressed with PWAs.
It’s still early though, and remains unclear if this new effort of Google’s will result in a mass shift away from native apps. It also remains a possibility that a hybrid model which embraces aspects of native and web apps could prevail. As PWAs increase in functionality, the list of reasons to switch from native apps would increase. However, native apps are still very reliable and “comfortable” for most users, so a mass transition to PWAs may be a slow one.
Let us know what you think of PWAs and their impact on mobile apps in the next couple of years, and click here for more information!