Progressive Web Apps

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Insight from @morganphilo - April 2019
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Some big movements are coming through the web/mobile development scene and it will be interesting how it shakes up the mobile development industry. There is a lot of companies offering to build a web application and mobile apps to accompany it, the question is why the need to differentiate when they end up being near identical products? My feel is it is a mix of development shops not conveying the coming reduction in need for mobile apps and clients not aware of the reducing need for an app.

The pre-mobile generation remember life without the app store, searching to find software and working out if you can trust it. Mobile came along and took the opportunity to control the eco-system and review software. Now, a generation has grown up looking to the app store to find what they need - this is going to change. To what degree is yet to be determined.

The fact remains that websites have become responsive and mobile optimised. So why can't you just list your website in the app store so the user base can gain visibility? What makes an app different if it serves the same function?

Introducing Progressive Web Apps

Progressive web apps are a way to install a website directly on a device so it appears like any other app. It can work offline and provide a lot of native mobile functionality such as GPS, Camera, accelerometer and persistent data storage. Browsers can automatically sync the state across your devices (using browser sync). If your website is responsive and works well on mobile devices it takes only minutes to set up - that is it.

So with the great progression in web standards, the need for mobile apps is shrinking to specialised use cases such as games and AR/AV (but look out for WebAssembly). As the mobile web traffic slice of the pie continues to be larger than desktop, web standards have developed to better cater to them. The majority of people across the globe have slow internet and limited access. Asia and Africa holds most of the new uptake in web users as their middle class grows; catering to them by design becomes more important. Offering your service in these markets is not only prudent, it makes good business sense - why limit your audience. Especially on growing markets that will have more purchasing influence in the not too distant future. PWA's are smaller to download, will work on every device (even low end ones) and can work offline like any other app.
Look to Facebook's Lite versions of its apps which have over 1 Billion downloads; attributed to emerging markets.

So as web standards are moving to make mobile functionality available to websites, you are targeting a larger audience by supporting them better. One of the big benefits for all involved is the "App doesn't work for me: 1 star" reviews you see a lot of. Due to the fragmentation of the Android eco-system it becomes more and more difficult to ensure it works for every variant of device and type. Web does not suffer in this way, browsers stay up-to-date across all devices unlike the operating system - the web environment is generally very consistent for development and your app.

The Hurdles

Let's be clear that PWA's currently have a fairly large deficiency - they are not in the Apple App store and that's where a large portion of the audience is. The Microsoft store now allows you to list PWA's in it, although this is a clear effort to solve its major problem for them - the volume of apps is low. On Android you can easily bundle the PWA into a store listing and tools exist to do this automatically, when you choose 'add to home screen' this is exactly what it does using WebAPKs behind the scenes.
You can easily package your PWA as an IOS app but you quickly hit their restrictions around minimum functionality (you cannot re-package a website), and their advice is to direct users to the browser - circling back to the initial issue raised. I suspect they will change their stance, but in development circles they are known to be a hostile platform so let's wait and see.
With the major drop in share price in 2018, IPhone Xr was released to better align with the price point of price sensitive markets (and boost the slowing IPhone sales). Lets hope they do more to support these emerging markets by bringing PWA's into their eco-system; it turns out that a stock price drop forces a company to innovate.

Should I transition, when and how?

Take a good look at what your mobile apps offer:

  • Is it novel from the mobile website?
  • Does it require permissions that are not offered to web applications for example local-file access?
  • Does it perform a lot of on-device computation (resource intensive)?
  • Is a true native mobile feel important to the offering and cannot be replicated in the mobile browser?

If your mobile app offering is fairly similar to your mobile site, it might be time to think about reducing the burden of developing mobile apps and move to the platform where you can develop once and target all devices.
PWA's are simply offered by putting a file on your website. The extent you go to support offline devices etc is up to you, but getting your site to offer installation to the device is a trivial amount of development effort.

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