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Progressive Web Apps – What Are They and Do I Need One?

Author

26 Sep 2017

Florian

progressive web apps

You might not necessarily know what a progressive web app is, but you’ve probably used one before. This hot new term is on the lips of every app developer. But for users it’s sometimes hard to understand exactly what they do.

In this article we’ll dig deep into what makes a progressive web app, whether you should create one for your company and if it makes sense to abandon other types of apps. So let’s begin with the fundamentals.

 

What is a progressive web app?

Firstly, it helps to understand what a web app is. At its most basic, it’s an application that runs in a browser. So for example Gmail.com or Ebay.com are web apps. You can access them (from Chrome, Edge, Firefox etc…) and perform certain tasks, even on your phone. You’ll be able to check messages, bid for an auction and generally go beyond reading text or looking at images like on a standard website.

The progressive part is quite a loose definition. It was coined by Google Chrome engineers in 2015, and it really just means “web apps that support the latest browser technology”. But since then the requirements have evolved to mean:

  • Progressive (obviously) – The apps must work for every user, regardless of browser
  • Responsive – They must fit any screen: desktop, mobile or tablet
  • Offline features – You must be able to access them offline
  • App-like – They must feel like an app with app-style interactions and navigation.
  • Fresh – They must always be up to date
  • Safe – They must use HTTPS for increased security
  • Discoverable – You must be able to find them through search engines like Google
  • Re-engageable – They should make re-engagement easy through features like push notifications.
  • Installable – Users should be able to “keep” apps they find most useful on their home screen without the hassle of an app store.
  • Linkable – They must be easily shared via a URL

So going back to our example of the Gmail and Ebay websites, you’ll notice that they miss key features. You can’t access them offline, and you can’t install them on your phone’s home screen – which is something you can do with their native apps.

 

Progressive Web apps Vs Native Apps

So now you may be wondering: what’s the point of a progressive web app when I can get users to download the native app instead? It is a valid question. Both have their pros and cons as you’ll see in the table below.

Native App Progressive Web App Standard Web App
Submission and Installation
Submitting the app Need two developer accounts. One for the Play Store and one for the Apple Store No developer account needed No developer account needed
How to install Need to go to the App store or Play Store, click download, enter password Just click a button to add them to their phone home screen (only on Android)
Size Sometimes heavy. They can take a while to download on your users’ phones Very lightweight and fast Very lightweight and fast
Updates Need to be submitted to the store, then downloaded by the user Instant updates Instant updates
Access
Offline access Available You need to use the app once online, then should be able to access the cached content offline x mark 512 1
Launch in Full Screen images x mark 512 1
User experience Excellent (when the app is designed well) At times confusing because of the double menus (app menu and browser menu) Same as progressive web apps
Engagement Very high. People spend a lot more time in native apps as there are no distractions Harder to keep people engaged. The app is like an extra open tab in the browser – it’s very easy for people to switch Same as progressive web apps
Discoverability Not great – your users need to know the name of the app to find it, or you need to work hard on your app store optimization Good – your app can appear in search results if you optimize it for SEO x mark 512 1
SEO The app’s content doesn’t get indexed by search engines Full indexation of the content You can index the main page where your web app is, but not every single section of the app.
Sharing Hard – you need to get a link for the app in the store and send it to other people so they can download it Very easy, just copy and paste the URL Same as progressive web apps
Features
Push notifications images images

(Android only)

images

(possible with third party services)

Geolocation images images images
Camera / microphone access images images images
Device vibration images images x mark 512 1
Screen orientation, accelerometer, compass images images x mark 512 1
Battery Status images images x mark 512 1
Access contacts and calendar images x mark 512 1 x mark 512 1
Telephony features: SMS or calls, send SMS/MMS, get phone numbers etc. images x mark 512 1 x mark 512 1
Monetization
Sell your app You can set any price you want for your app and sell it on the stores By definition, all web apps are completely free to use Same as progressive web apps
Make money from ads images images images

So as you can see, it would seem like progressive web apps have certain advantages. But there is a very big caveat:

 

Apple is only slowly showing support progressive web apps.

Hold on. Does it mean that web apps aren’t fully progressive if they aren’t supported on all browsers? Technically it does, but the answer is a bit more complicated, because most of the features still work on iOS.

As of March 2018, the current limitations for iOS are:

  • the PWA can only store up to 50Mb offline data
  • if the user doesn't use the app for a while (couple of weeks), iOS automatically empties the app cache, so it will be slower to load next time
  • still can't access contacts, background location and native social apps
  • no push notifications
  • no in-app payments supported.

For more information on the restrictions by Apple and their history, you can read this excellent post here.

What about app makers?

GoodBarber has been at the forefront of PWAs for quite some time. We tested one and were honestly surprised by how good the results were. But now, following the trouble with submissions to iOS, many other platforms followed in their footsteps. This includes AppInstitute, BiznessApps AppYourself and AppyPie, amongst others. In any case, you can see how PWA features look in GoodBarber, as you will get the option to add SEO keywords to your pages.

 

GoodBarber PWA SEO

 

You can also link the app to a custom domain name:

 

Screen Shot 2017 09 13 at 13.29.16

Please note that you cannot send push notifications yet in GoodBarber, which just adds to the restrictions vs native apps. They are apparently working on this feature for an upcoming release.

However, one big plus is the way GoodBarber handles the app design. We’re usually unimpressed by web apps, but we have to say GoodBarber’s solution is very efficient thanks to their home screen which mimics a website landing page with menu.

If you are starting a new project or company, GoodBarber (free trial) could be ideal. Provided your needs are simple enough, you could get a progressive web app and website for the price of one. For an idea of what this could look like, check out our progressive web app demo and here: https://apptooltester.goodbarber.com.

 

So should I go for a progressive web app?

Progressive Web Apps are a fascinating format, but in a strange position. Google calls them revolutionary. Apple is pushing back against them. Developers seem to like them, but only as an improvement over basic web apps, and still in direct competition with native apps. And they’re certainly not as important as having a good responsive website.

 

mobile website vs app reach

Source: Google I/0 Developer conference 2017

In short, it’s certainly a technology that should be used if you know what you want from it. Here’s where we would recommend them over a native app:

  • You are not selling your app
  • Your users often need quick access to the information you offer
  • You have a blog or content-heavy website
  • Your users have slow or little Internet access
  • Your users are found all around the world (global Android market share is now 84% vs 16% for Apple. But in the US it’s closer to a 50 / 50 split)
  • You want people to find your app through Google
  • You want to send push notifications (Android only and not available yet with Goodbarber)
  • You want to be able to add fast and easy updates without having to go through an app store’s review process

Conclusion

We think the reason progressive web apps are so confusing is that they’re at a kind of hybrid stage between a website and a native app. They aren’t exactly a game-changer, and just a good step in the right direction to make apps more accessible to everyone thanks to the World Wide Web. But when people think of apps, they still picture “native apps” so the competition has a long way to go, especially since Apple is focusing its efforts on the App Store.

However, it’s worth noting that you would be in good company with a progressive web app. In fact, a growing number of large organizations are completely abandoning native apps in their favour. The Financial Times and the Washington Post are shining examples.

You can also find a lot more cool examples of what they can do here: https://pwa.rocks/ (but don’t expect to be able to make those with an app maker).

 

Questions? Feedback? Just get in touch below!