January 26, 2017 - Web development

Progressive Web Applications: The Thing to Consider When Short on Resources

by Antoni Żółciak
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Back in late 2015, Google went public with an exciting new approach to app development that, they theorized, would herald a departure from the limited functionality and platform-locked design that was prevalent in the industry. This new method was fittingly referred to as a “progressive web app“, or PWA.

This concept brought the promise of providing an experience that combined the very best qualities of the web with native apps. For those who can remember or still occasionally stumble into the dreaded “mobile web,” the idea that there was finally going to be a better way to use the Internet on a mobile platform – that didn’t involve a native app – was a welcome news indeed.

Looking for condensed information?

  • There’s no need for a separate code base.
  • Your PWA works within a user’s browser.
  • They don’t have to install anything from Google Play or the App Store.
  • It’s relatively cheaper than developing native apps.

The change came as a trickle, not a flood. Now, after early success, many more people – developers in particular – are starting to get behind this new approach. For the vast majority of us who may have greeted the initial news with some enthusiasm but soon forgot all about this much touted new generation of Progressive Web Apps, this quick primer will help fill you in on what they are, what they do differently, and how you or your business could stand to benefit by making the switch from your current platform-bound solutions to a unified approach.

For our beloved non-technical audience

PWA (or a Progressive Web Application) is an app within your browser, displayed as a website. It’s not something that you have to download and install from Google Play or the App Store.

So, what are Progressive Web Apps exactly?

© Google

A Progressive Web App is based largely on the idea that the Internet, particularly with mass adoption of HTML 5 and similar web development languages, has evolved. Moved forward. Matured to a point where PWAs are capable of providing similar functionality and seamless user interface found in the best traditional native apps via a direct mobile experience. An experience that was previously hard to provide.

This shift in approach brings with it many changes as well as quite a few benefits, not only for the companies and individuals who currently develop on mobile platforms but also for their users.

When are PWAs better than native apps

The most important and most apparent advantage of this approach and also the one that is most apparent is that developers will no longer need to develop multiple apps across multiple mobile platforms. Even for those who develop only for iOS and Android, this means huge savings in app development time and effort. PWAs offer the promise of being able to develop a single app and have it work perfectly across all your platforms and devices.

Here are the highlights:

  • Maximize reach

A progressive web app can help a business quickly reach the maximum number of people possible across all desired platforms with relatively less development effort. In a market where competition is sky-high, the ability to expand your market reach faster than the competition can prove to be a decisive advantage.

  • Fewer clicks, more patience

A PWA, unlike its native counterparts, does not require installation prior to usage. By some accounts each additional click required to get an app running results in a user drop-off rate of around 20%. This extremely high rate of attrition prevents the majority of potential users from ever even trying a native application. We know this because most apps in the app store have never been downloaded.

  •  A seamless inter-app experience

When was the last time you used Twitter and opened an interesting link shared by a friend, only to have Twitter shunted aside while your browser opens up the link you clicked on?

Chances are it wasn’t that long ago. From a user’s perspective, one of the more notable benefits of progressive web apps is a vastly improved app cross-functionality. What this effectively means is that switching between apps, and sharing information between them becomes less intrusive or frustrating. Instead, it’s much faster and more intuitive. Basically, it’s like Facebook Instant Articles or an in-app browser for Slack.

Whether working on an app or a web experience, the quality of the code matters most. Learn why.

Don’t think this is the end of the line for native

Not quite. While PWAs do offer a number of advantages over traditional apps, it is still a bit early to count them out of the game. The fact is that native apps became the dominant force on mobile platforms for a very simple reason. Web experiences were simply not effectively adapted for them.

While that tide has started to turn, it’s still early. In 2016,native applications accounted for about 87% of all mobile internet traffic. That’s a large entrenched user-base. Companies that already offer apps on multiple platforms may not feel a great deal of pressure to aggressively pursue a shift to web-based app development.

Inertia aside, many developers are well versed in multi-platform native app development and may be resistant to changing their development processes and workflows in the short term. Current platform devkits and APIs offer tremendous functionality to those providing web design and development services.

Finally, PWAs – despite their stated benefits – do have a number of issues that need to be ironed out before they can claim to offer an unassailably superior alternative to native apps.

Progressive web apps have limited capabilities when it comes to offering integration with a smartphone or tablet’s hardware features

PWAs have limited capabilities when it comes to offering integration with a smartphone or tablet’s hardware features such as NFC and Bluetooth functionality as well as the device’s sensor package (accelerometer, fingerprint sensor, etc.). This prevents PWAs from being developed for use with mobile accessories and “wearables” like smart watches, fitness trackers and wireless earphones.

For the time being, when it comes to fully harnessing a mobile device’s hardware capabilities, native platform-specific applications still rule the roost.

PWAs Can Help Your Business

If you don’t have enough resources to build native Android, iOS, and web apps that sync with each other, PWAs are something to consider. And they surely are important for website’s traffic and reach.

As impressive as it all sounds on paper, what matters most is whether it delivers where it counts: helping your business better connect with and serve your customers.

While we have discussed a few of the advantages that progressive web apps promise, this list lays out the key benefits that a company can enjoy by embracing PWAs as a big part of their strategy on mobile platforms.

  • Reduce development lead time

As we mentioned earlier, the biggest benefit offered by PWAs is the fact that you will only need to develop a single “platform-agnostic” version of your app and make it accessible to all potential users, no matter what device are they on.

  • Simple updates

With no app to be downloaded and updated every time you make changes to your services, a progressive web app can keep all your users up to date. It enables them to immediately enjoy the latest functionality, features, and security updates without the need to re-download the app. Using a PWA largely eliminates the problem of software “fragmentation” that may force a company needing to extend legacy support to old versions or risk cutting off sections of the user base until they initiate an update.

  • Unified customer experience

Swapping native apps for PWAs also means that all your customers have access to the same version of your app. This uniformity across platforms can help ensure you are able to consistently deliver a powerful and optimized user experience to your entire user-base.

  • Easier access and increased engagement

One of the goals of great web design is to provide the user with the content, information, and experience they need, using the fewest number of steps. This is an area where PWAs really shine. They require a minimal amount of effort to provide what the user needs. PWAs offer a complete user experience on mobile without the need to download and install an app.

This simplicity and ease of access leads to a significantly increased level of user engagement. PWAs developed by the Washington Post and Aliexpress (Alibaba) have resulted in a vastly improved rate of engagement – as much as 5x in the case of the Washington Post, and 82% for Aliexpress users on iOS. This is especially noteworthy, given that iOS doesn’t really support Progressive Web Apps.

New, but still familiar

Since PWAs can still launch from your home screen and provide an experience and user interface that is very similar to their native counterparts, there’s very little to discourage users from making the switch.

Of course, being listed on the App Store or Google Play is still an important part of building and maintaining visibility for your apps. However, a PWA offers a far greater degree of freedom for platform owners attempting to build “walled gardens” for which they serve as gatekeepers. There are still a number of challenges to overcome and some of the caveats mentioned might always hold true. It can’t be denied, though, that Progressive Web Apps offer many benefits over their native counterparts.

Whether the latest efforts being championed by Google will result in an inexorable shift away from native apps remains to be seen. We also don’t yet know if the market will eventually settle into equilibrium with platforms embracing a hybrid model: one that features both PWAs and native apps.

As PWAs increase the functionality they offer and expand their offline capabilities to integrate Bluetooth, NFC, and other hardware functions and sensors on mobile devices, the list of reasons to consider them is growing. On the other hand, the native app business is still the most reliable one. It still provides an experience that may not be achievable through PWAs for quite awhile.

By the way, we can build you both a PWA, or a set of native apps. Feel free to reach out.

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