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What exactly are Progressive Web Apps and why do we need them?

By Nico Turco  Senior Frontend Developer, Foolproof.

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are gaining serious traction in the development world. Hailed by many developers as the future of mobile, PWAs could soon become the norm right across the business spectrum.

What are PWAs?

PWAs are web applications with specialist functionality. Though they share commonalities with native apps and websites — they’re powered by one code base, load like web pages and don’t rely on intermediaries to download to your device. 

Users can access PWAs through an icon just like a native app, interact with it offline, and receive push notifications.

As a simple yet effective alternative to native apps, they also boast up to a 10x reduction in mobile development costs.

Why bother? 

PWAs bridge the gap between native and web apps by offering functionalities that – until now – were only available to native apps.

But unlike native apps, their performance and efficiency are, for those with lower phone capabilities, often far greater.

From a user’s perspective, PWAs offer a multitude of advantages, but above all else, they remove our reliance on intermediaries such as Google Play and the App Store, as they’re hosted by, and downloadable from, the browser.

As a result – PWAs require little to no storage space in comparison to their native counterparts. Typically, they also rely on fewer cash injections across the lifespan of their development. This is because they rely on the web platform, which is universally supported.

PWAs can be used to create Minimum Viable Products and Proof of Concepts too. For clients with smaller budgets who require an app-like experience or for those wanting to test appetite before investing in a fully-fledged native app, PWAs offer a cheaper alternative.

For bigger organisations, they can complement your current app experience by widening your funnel relatively inexpensively. PWAs and native apps do not have to be at loggerheads. 

Platform wars

It’s easy to see why Apple has been hesitant to support PWAs – the App Store generates a significant part of their overall revenue stream.

That said, the barriers to entry are lower for Android-powered devices (even then the experience delivered may hint at internal conflicts at Google). 

This is because Google’s ethos is closely aligned to play and discovery. It makes sense that PWAs are more readily available.

That said, iOS 12.2’s beta will extend support for new browser features that will further improve the PWA experience for Apple’s users.

The next step for Google will be adding PWAs to the Play Store so companies can begin to monetise and centralise their creations while maintaining low development costs. 

Microsoft also recently announced the company will invest in a dedicated PWA store to extend its support of their functionality.

Weighing up

PWAs aren’t for everyone – just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. It’s important to understand the problem creating one aims to solve. 

When the first iPhone was launched, browser capabilities were limited i.e. you couldn’t link a home-screen icon to a particular website. Equally, you couldn’t receive push notifications and/or interact with websites without an internet connection.

PWAs now offer these functionalities which means connectivity and limited device storage are no longer barriers to entry for mobile application users.

Historically, native apps were the obvious choice because native languages such as Java and C++ interact well with hardware and native functionalities.

Now browsers offer greater support – the ‘best solution’ isn’t always a native app experience.

For those wanting to create/retain sophisticated performance and functionality, that rely on hardware capabilities, the native app is still your best bet.

If you’d prefer a straightforward app with lower barriers to entry – PWAs are worth exploring.

Our favourite PWA examples include: