Progressive web applications (PWAs) are a relatively new hot topic in the world of digital/application development. A google trends search reveals the term “Progressive Web Application” didn’t really take off until March of 2016.
But are PWAs really a new concept, or just the realization of the promise that one day most mobile apps will be powered by the web?
To answer this question, we need to consider what they are and what they are not. For those who are looking for a TLDR, read no further. Progressive Web Apps are really just a new version of the “name your price tool” Flo’s been selling us for years.
The containerized app model has been enormously successful in delivering a native-like app experience using web based technologies by delivering the entire payload for the application in the form of client code rather than our more traditional client/server models. That’s not to say that there isn’t a server – just that after the initial load, the application has everything it needs to paint views, enable navigation and most other functionality while it makes external requests to a server to get application data. Service workers take this experience to the next level by acting as a client-side caching layer that uses the idea of Promises to try to get external data from the server, but allow the user to continue using the application if the network connection drops. This is enormously powerful in the world of mobile since even Verizon users lose network connections sometimes.
What makes progressive web apps interesting from a business standpoint is the idea of reducing the friction required to attract first time, and potentially daily active users.
Think about it: it’s 2017, even though “there’s an app for that,” chances are you don’t want to install it on your device. The average number of apps mobile users install and use is decreasing, meaning there is hyper-competition for consumer attention and a huge barrier to entry: app-installation.
By contrast, what makes Progressive Web Apps so exciting is the magic of the web – with a single click, a user can immediately begin using your application. With two and a half clicks, they can install it on their home screens and continue using it. That’s a huge deal considering the cost of acquiring a new user continues to be on one of the biggest challenges faced by new mobile applications, even when they are free to download and use. This is especially exciting when we consider that the allure of hybrid mobile is the ability to share most of a codebase across web and mobile channels, but still required developers to deploy, package and market applications via traditional app stores.
Now, we can have our progressive web cakes without trading the outlandish costs of developing them for the slightly-less-outlandish costs of marketing them too.
That said, the jury is still out on whether or not PWAs will see the developer adoption rates we would expect. The main defector: Apple. Yes, Chrome has supported progressive web apps for quite some time and enabled developers to download them directly onto their home screens to provide an indistinguishable experience from those from their app store. Meanwhile, apple has yet to commit to fully supporting progressive web apps, possibly because of the fact that the app store represents a huge distribution revenue stream for the tech behemoth. Still, full support has not prevented developers from transitioning to the progressive web architecture and many still argue that even without full support, progressive web apps are a solid footed investment for most web based products.
Even if it’s just a cache phrase, the architecture is here to stay.