Progressive Web Apps – A Promise for Web Developers

“Disruptive” or “Radical” are some adjectives to describe novel technologies. “Ajax”, with its concept of responsiveness was one which caused transition in web engineering rivalling traditional applications on the web. The other transition which was notable was arrival of native apps in the mobility domain. With Android and iPhone aggressively grasping market shares from the traditional blackberry’s, a new demand was witnessed in the year 2014 – that of native apps which could be developed and stored in Google or App stores and used directly by mobile devices. Mobile websites seem to have lost the battle to these apps, which were capturing the market rapidly.  No longer being profitable, these sites were in the process of closing their shutters. By the end of 2015, millions of apps were developed (1.5 million in App Store and another 1.9 million in Google Play Store).

Are all of these apps of use? The answer is “No”. Majority of these apps today are “zombies” – unused apps consuming stores, which have never been downloaded.  Therefore, the question still remains – whether the promise of native apps is fading and eventually would be lost out to the web?

Native apps were “hot potatoes” to users because of their feeling of ownership, of having apps on the device home screens, fast loading and offline usage. Mobile developers were quick to latch on to this demand and developed countless apps. Web developers, on the other hand, focused on server side technologies, new JavaScript features and components – Node.js, Angular.js, React.js, HTML5, Web API, single page applications etc. The developments in this domain were relatively slow, given the limitations of these technologies.  Things however, started to change with the advent of Progressive Web Apps. The functionalities, which were viewed as key advantages of using apps on smartphone, were progressively available for the web developers to extend to their mobile websites.

Progressive web apps (PWAs) use the same set of technologies that developers usually use – HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Moreover, they do not require special IDEs for development, such as Android Kit or iOS SDKs, but could be developed using simple editors like Notepad++.  With inherent advantages of these apps, web developers are excited again about the numerous possibilities that this technology would create for them.

Still confused with the idea of PWAs??

Here is a definition from Google – “Progressive Web Apps are experiences that combine the best of the web and the best of apps.” Essentially, these apps tend to create similar user experience for the web user, to those of mobile users using native apps. As the name suggests, these Apps offer a few key features:

  • Progressive, in order to accommodate any user irrespective of their choice of browsers.
  • Responsive to any kind of screen – laptop, desktop, mobile, tablet or any other form of screen.
  • Tolerant to Connectivity issues, i.e. can work offline in networks with poor connectivity, with the help of service workers.
  • Like App, i.e. built with an App Shell model, it offers an app like feel to the user on the web with styles like apps, navigation and integrations.
  • Latest updates using service worker updates.
  • Secured using HTTPS protocol so as to avoid pilfering or corruption of information.
  • Search Engine Friendly, ensuring easy identification and accessibility with Search engines such as Google or Bing, etc.
  • Push notifications to reengage customers lost due to non-availability or lost sessions. The Service worker threads, which remain “alive” beyond the life of a browser session, hold the key to these notifications. These workers make the notifications available during the following sessions to the users.
  • Easy availability of Apps on Home Screen without the need for an App Store.
  • Shareable by URLs – no complex installation of apps required.

With the arena for progressive web apps heating up, there are some interesting uses of this concept. FlipKart claims to have used PWAs to design FlipKart Lite that has improved retention of users by about 70%.  The other site which has received rave reviews for these apps is The Washington Post.

Like any other technology, Progressive Web Apps have their own set of issues. A cause for concern is that the mobile web site is turning more app-like creating a demarcation in look, feel and usage between a mobile website and a standard website. For any App to qualify as a PWA on the Google Chrome browser, the browser looks for a few properties and if satisfied, extends a few abilities like the ability to add to a home screen of a smartphone. PWAs also require to provide manifests for their sites, with the display status – “standalone”, “fullscreen”, and “browser”. The “browser” is the only option where the URL can be seen, and the look is like a web browser. However, Google does not register this mode as a PWA.

Therefore, developers seem to be focusing more on the “app” part rather than the “web”.  The URL, which is an essential ingredient of the web since its inception is no more to be seen in these implementations, essentially stripping the web of its basic feature, i.e the address bar.

As usual, the development is chaotic and messy, but that does not deter the developers from aggressively establishing this as a standard. Expectations are high, and very soon, the effort is likely to bring out the best that the web has to offer, eventually making users even stronger.

 

 

Sudipta Choudhury
Sudipta Choudhury is a Technical / Business Writer with considerable industry experience in various domains. He can be reached at sudipta_choudhury@writeforvalue.com

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Sudipta Choudhury

Sudipta Choudhury is a Technical / Business Writer with considerable industry experience in various domains. He can be reached at sudipta_choudhury@writeforvalue.com

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