Progressive Web Apps Are the Future

So you've heard a lot about progressive web apps. So what is exactly a PWA?

Well, the idea goes back to 2015 and an article written by Alex Russell, who's a Google engineer. He outlined the requirements for progressive web applications. Since then, the whole industry's been working towards PWAs by integrating this into their browsers.

Google Chrome supports it now, and Edge will be supporting it, and yes even Safari's getting a version of it this year. Now what makes a progressive web app unique is its ability. So for the first time, these web applications can work offline and in the background.

And that's done through something called a Service Worker. You can think of these as little guys that work in the background. They pull in notifications. It also caches material, and that's how it works offline.

There's also no Chrome here. Meaning, not the Chrome browser, but when you launch a PWA, it doesn't look like you're in the browser. It looks like it's an application. It's actually kind of eerie how it works. But you don't get the browser controls. It's just standard web application stuff.

What makes these things really compelling is when you use them, it's really hard to tell the difference. For instance, Instagram has a PWA, so if you go to instagram.com on your Android phone, assuming it's a modern one, and you log in, you'll be asked if you want to pin this to your start screen or your application screen, and if you would like to receive notifications.

Once you do that, and then you open that app, it looks just like the regular Instagram application. In fact, the scrolling is better than the native Android app, which tells you a lot.

Does Google and Microsoft See This as the Future of App Development?

The thinking behind all this is that applications don't have much longevity.

We're not talking about your email app necessarily, things you launch every day, or heavy things like games. What we mean is, say you want to order flowers, or you want to call up an Uber. These are nice to have as applications, but you're not using them all the time.

It gets really expensive to maintain these apps. Now, a company like Uber is really not starved for cash. So let's put them aside.

But let's talk about your local restaurant or your local car garage. Now on average, it probably costs around £25,000 to £45,000 if you want to hire a dedicated app developer.

Now some work on a partial fee per month to maintain the app, while others just require a flat-out salary. £45,000 a year is not cheap at all, especially if you're a local restaurant.

In fact, that's kind of cost prohibitive. So it's very expensive for small organisations to make an application, especially if they want to put it on iOS and Android.

Remember, most developers still target iOS first with Android coming second, despite the fact that Android is the larger market share. So this really comes down to an issue of cost. But there's actually a little bit more going on here.

Why Is Google Pushing This?

They have a pretty awesome store the last time we checked. Well, it's actually a really good point. Google's business model though is actually on the web. It's not really an app store, nor is it selling Android devices.

Android is really about you getting to use Google services and going on the web. If every company created their own native application, and it pulls data directly from the site without going through the web, well that actually hurts Google's bottom line.

Don't forget, apps really don't count against web traffic.

Google actually wants this to happen because in using a progressive web application, you're using the web. You're using analytics. You're using their ad stuff.

You're getting everything to count against SEO as well. So it shows up in search. So this all benefits Google. They don't really care about the app store in that sense. What they want are people back on the web.

So not only does this extend the life of the world wide web, but it actually gives it more life. It gives it a new lease going into 2018.

As to why Microsoft wants it, these should be pretty obvious. They have the app gap problem. And this potentially solves that.

How Will PWAs Affect the Microsoft Store?

Microsoft recently talked about this, and it's really interesting. This is the difference with PWAs, if you're on an Android device, and you open your Chrome browser or even Edge browser and you go to twitter.com, log in, it'll ask you to pin it to the app screen.

The problem there is you can still have the Instagram app installed and then have a PWA installed as well living side by side. And there's sort of a discoverability issue.

Now we're not really sure what Google's going to do, or what Apple's going to do regarding PWAs in their stores. What we can tell you is what Microsoft is going to do. They're going to put PWAs directly onto the store.

And how they do this is through the universal Windows platform. You basically have a bridge that supports this. So they're taking a PWA, wrapping it in the appX wrapper, putting it into the store.

But you also get other features there. For instance, you get Live Tiles, you can get Cortana and you can get in-app purchases.

You also get deeper analytics. You get discoverability because a user is going to basically launch the app store, the Microsoft Store. They're going to search for say, Uber or Twitter. And guess what's going to be there? An application.

Now technically its going to be a PWA, but will the user know? No, because there's no Chrome. It doesn't look like a web browser. It looks like an application. But there's more to this.

So how are you going to get PWAs in the store? Do they have to go to each company and ask them? No, they don't. Since these are just websites, all they're doing is putting websites in their store.

They don't need their permission. Microsoft has already said they're going to use a thing called Bing Crawler.

They've been looking at PWA sites that are live right now. And if they meet certain standards, they're going to be putting these in the store automatically.

So we can expect probably a couple hundred, maybe even a thousand of these things to all of a sudden show up in the store.

Once it gets even more advanced in terms of quality, they start to get user feedback and everything is working well, Bing Crawler will be able to package these things up and put it into the store automatically with no one there.

Now since no money's being transpired here, Microsoft is not making money on ads through these things. It's all just pulling in a website from a company, there's no reason that a company needs to give permission.

If Twitter wanted to deny a PWA on Windows 10, they'd be effectively saying you can't go to twitter.com on your web browser, which would be insane.

So this is the big difference here. Microsoft is treating PWAs as first-class citizens, as they say. They're putting them right in their store. They're going to be right there for users to avoid the discoverability problem of having to go to the website, log in, and then pin it to your start screen.

It's a very unique thing.

Are There Any Big Name Brand Apps out There That Are PWAs?

So the answer here will surprise you, maybe not. But there are a lot of PWAs already out there. Including Google Maps. Yes, this already works in Edge on Android.

You can pin it to your start screen and have a PWA of Google Maps that uses your location and works just like the app itself.

That means in theory, yes, Project Andromeda will have Google Maps, which is really enticing. But there are other ones out there. Starbucks has a PWA. If you go to app.starbucks.com on your phone, you can see it there, log in, and pin it that to your start screen.

You also have Twitter, you have Instagram, you have Tinder, you have Uber, you have Lyft.

You have a bunch of services already out there. Even Pinterest has a PWA.

So yes, all the major companies are embracing this because again, companies hate paying developers.

Sorry. They'd rather just have a web developer basically make a PWA website and call it a day.

We also expect a lot of banks to jump on this. Because maintaining a banking app is super expensive. There's a lot of security involved, there's a lot of laws in effect that they need to be compliant with.

That's one reason why Windows 10 always had an issue with banking apps. They're very expensive to maintain.

But what is always maintained? A banking website. In fact, that gets updated even before any iOS and Android app. So if a bank can maintain a PWA, well that's a win-win for everybody, including them and their consumers and yes, eventually Windows 10 users.

Does Microsoft Have Any Plans to Release Any of Its Apps in PWA Form?

That question's a little confusing and we'll tell you why. PWA has to be thought of as first living on the web. If we can give you an example, outlook.com.

So outlook.com is both an email service that's on the web, but of course, there are apps for it. Now is Microsoft going to take its app and convert to PWA? No! What they did do though was convert outlook.com into supporting PWA.

So again, launch your Android phone up. Use Chrome, use Edge and go to outlook.com, and now add that to your home screen and relaunch it and you're going to quickly see it looks just like an Outlook app.

It's very impressive. It is full PWA compliant. So Microsoft will take any of their services that live on the web and convert those to PWAs. So we imagine OneDrive is there as well. And their other services.

Microsoft is definitely on board here with making its websites PWA compliant.

Now PWAs, we should explain, is still very new. Google themselves aren't really launching their PWAs until mid-2018. So look for this technology to ramp up.

And don't forget, it's 1.0, so for instance, the Instagram app does a lot of cool stuff already. You can double tap to like something. It has very good scrolling.

You can access even the camera, which is kind of unique. But it doesn't do everything. These things are very powerful. They're not necessarily as powerful as native apps but that will change as PWAs progress and improve over time.

Do Developers Even Need an App Store?

We touched upon this a little bit earlier. If your website is free to access. It's outlook.com, it's Uber, it's Twitter, it's Lyft or it's LinkedIn. There is no cut. Right?

If your app is free on the store, Microsoft's not really taking a cut. And we already described earlier how Microsoft's going to put these websites on their store automatically without necessarily asking those companies to do so.

Because all they're doing is linking to that website after all. So there's no changing of money here, which is why legally they can do this. So what stores are really good for is discoverability.

The idea is you want to open up Windows 10 for the first time, and for your out of the box experience you want to hit the app store and be like, I want Twitter or I want my banking app.

Type it in and it shows up. You hit install, and it downloads. Sure, everybody knows you can just launch the browser and do that. But this is going to be a containerized version of that.

And what's really neat about the PWA stuff in the store is technically the app never needs to be updated. Since its pulling down live data all the time, and it can live in a cache offline, all it depends on is that website being updated. So the consumer really wins out here as well.

How Long Until PWAs Are the Standard and Not the Exception?

Making predictions about new technology's always difficult, especially standards. But we expect PWAs to catch up pretty fast.

We already listed a bunch of major sites that are already supporting it, and technically it hasn't launched yet, at least not in an official capacity.

So we're seeing a lot of uptake from developers with this. We do expect you're going to see a lot of this in 2018.

Now what really matters is how the stores basically adopt PWA.

We know Microsoft is going full blast with it. And that's going to be very good for the technology. We're not sure what Google's policy's going to be here, but we wouldn't be surprised if they decide to put PWAs in their stores as well.

Moreover, we could see Twitter or Instagram for instance, basically saying we're going to put our PWAs in the store and replace their current apps with it.

In fact, Twitter just announced that they're deprecating their app for Mac OS. Why is that? It's PWA, folks. There is just no point in Twitter making apps for all these platforms.

And if you've used Windows 10 Twitter app, you could probably see where this is going as well.

We could also imagine that app being deprecated and replaced instead with Twitter PWA. But we think this technology's going to come very quickly. And there's one reason. It's money. Companies don't want to pay developers to make and maintain these applications. It's also a platform neutral system.

It's a win-win for almost everyone involved, except maybe app developers on iOS and Android. In fact, we think this will probably hurt Apple devs the most because those devs get paid a lot of money and they're in high demand.

And they won't necessarily have as much work. Moreover, Apple would lose a lot of revenue potential as they don't necessarily get a cut from those apps either. So we'll just have to wait and see what happens there.

But expect PWA to be a big deal in 2018.