Progressive Web Apps – what’s the fuss about?

26th September 2016 by David Fyfe

Discover what Progressive Web Apps are bringing to the web industry

If you’re not at the leading edge of digital developments there’s every chance that you haven’t been aware of the rise of progressive web apps and the excitement in the industry about the way they are changing the rules for accessing content on mobile devices.

Let me take a step back first and set out the essential definitions that you need to be aware of. So, the apps that you have been greedily consuming on your phones and tablets for a number of years now are referred to as ‘Native apps’. This refers to the fact that the apps, launched from the icon on your devices, are ‘native’ to the devices’ operating system and meant that app developers typically specialised in one platform or the other, or had to develop parallel apps for each.

So what’s a web app? In simple terms it’s a website that is made to look like and operate like a native app. Meaning it’s programmed in the same way as a website and runs from a url, rather than a screen based launcher.

While development of a web app would typically be less expensive – it is viewable across all platforms, unlike a native app which has to be built individually for each platform – there were a number of features that were still unique to native apps that meant in many circumstances the native route was required. But that’s where the progressive bit comes in – PWAs (as they are known in the trade) have successfully developed features that were previously the preserve of the natives. Not only that, but there are also other features that make the PWA more attractive to consumers and businesses that use apps as a part of their digital marketing strategy.

It means that web apps can now be built that offer:

  • Apps that launch from a screen icon and in full screen mode
  • Push notifications when new content is available
  • The ability to work offline
  • Slicker 2D and 3D graphics (for the cognoscenti, these can be created using CSS3, HTML5 or WebGL!)

And, significantly slicker and smoother User Interfaces.

Yes, there are still some things that native apps can do that PWAs still can’t emulate, but as this is a piece about PWAs, we’re entitled to ignore these for now (and really they aren’t headline-makers). What’s causing real excitement though is that PWAs can also offer advantages over native apps in a number of significant aspects.

Reducing friction

Think about the journey before you can launch your native app – from going to the relevant app store to using your new app there are five steps, each of which are estimated to lose 20% of the initial audience. That means in practice for every 1,000 expectant users, as few as 262 will statistically ever get to the point of launching their app. Contrast this experience with a PWA where launch can be as simple as clicking a link and you’re up and running.

Search

Because a PWA is essentially a website, it is searchable on the web and appropriate content will enhance SEO – something that is much harder to achieve with a native app.

Getting your app launched

No need to seek approval from an app store for your app, something that can take time and be subject to arbitrary rules that might restrict or prohibit content – you simply let your audience know the url for your web app, or more likely send them a link.

Always up to date

PWA content doesn’t need to wait for the user to refresh an app at regular intervals, the user gets the up-to-date version as soon as they open their app.

Inclusive for PC users

An obvious advantage. And while people love viewing content on the move, there’s some content that demands a bigger stage to show itself off to the full.

Service Workers – strange name, valuable benefits

One advantage that native apps did hold over web apps is the ability to run the app without wifi access. However, this has been largely overcome by the development of ‘service workers’. Essentially this means that the content of the web app can be cached and reproduced as if the site were in a live environment – a big stride forward for web app proponents.

Given the continued advance of the PWA, it’s a really valuable option for clients looking for smart digital solutions that offer some really tangible advantages over the native option. Something that our clients are really warming to.

If you want to find out more, why not talk to our digital team?