Mobility

How Progressive Web Apps promise to upend native mobile apps

Progressive Web Apps give users an incremental app experience, making them an interesting approach to mobile web experiences.

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Image: iStockphoto/LDProd

Apps have dominated the early days of mobile, as brands have sought to deliver the highest quality experiences for smartphone-addicted consumers. Despite Walt Mossberg declaring that we've hit "peak app," consumers continue to download apps, leading to Apple recording its biggest ever month for app billings.

There are signs, however, that the web is catching up. Progressively.

I'm referring to Progressive Web Apps, the web's latest bid for relevance on mobile devices. The incredibly interesting thing about PWA, however, is that there's no single moment of truth for a consumer to wade into the hybrid vs. native debate. There's no declaration, "Well, yes, I want a substandard mobile experience and hence choose the web."

Instead, as Tom Dale, a creator of Ember.js—a leading enterprise JavaScript framework—told me, "The benefit of PWA is that you evolve towards the app experience without the user ever having to be pushed towards an App Store install, which has notoriously high bounce rates."

The "app," in other words, sneaks up on the user, giving her what she needs in increments, slowly becoming an app as that app experience is needed.

Out with the old apps?

While Apple initially tried to launch the iPhone with a web-oriented approach, apps quickly won out. The web was simply too slow and consumers demanded access to native elements (camera, etc.) that the web couldn't offer. Later things like PhoneGap emerged to plug the holes, but apps kept growing.

And yet, things are starting to change.

SEE: Why an app-focused strategy could lead to mobile failure

On a ride with an executive from a leading design and development agency, he talked to me about how several of his clients, among them mammoth US retailers, are increasingly deprecating their native app experiences for the mobile web. They were finding that a dedicated app was actually costing them customers, who preferred the easy access and discoverability of the web.

This jibes with my own conversation with a major US retailer that does over $2 billion in revenue through mobile devices, most of it coming from its website. That company views web as the top of the funnel and app as the bottom of the funnel, but sees sales trending toward web becoming both top and bottom of its funnel.

Because of the rise of Progressive Web Apps, however, the rigid distinction between web and app may be fading, anyway, giving enterprises a much more fluid way to engage with their customers.

The changing face of 'app'

Paul Adams, vice president of product at Intercom, gave some pretty clear hints as to where apps are going. Instead of apps as self-contained islands of interaction with a brand, apps are being broken up into services that increasingly escape the confines of an icon on a home screen. As he described: "In a world where notifications are full experiences in and of themselves, the screen of app icons makes less and less sense. Apps as destinations makes less and less sense."

Instead, brands will: "[Break] things right down into the individual atomic unit, including the content and actions. The atomic unit [is] separate from the container of the app itself, so that it can show up anywhere, on any device," Adams wrote. "The atomic units are then reassembled based on context."

A few examples help to explain this. Take, for example, a Facebook notification that allows me to respond to a comment on one of my posts without actually opening the app. Or, how about my reading of a Wall Street Journal article within Twitter, with Twitter basically serving as a "macro-app" that gives me access to lots of "micro-apps."

SEE No one downloads apps anymore: True or false?

Otherwise stated: It's a browser.

PWA your app

But, it's actually more than that, as Dale said. Progressive Web Apps, hatched at Google, promise to allow "users to start using your app from within a web view/via a link, without the commitment of an App Store install."

That sounds like the old premise behind web apps, but there's more to it.

Through the magic of the service worker, a "worker script that works behind the scenes, independent of your app, and runs in response to events like network requests, push notifications, connectivity changes, and more," PWA gives enterprises the ability to incrementally engage with customers.

Dale explained it like this: "Just by tapping a link, you start to download the pieces of the app in the background. The next time you visit, you have an instant-on experience without having to make the user make any affirmative choices."

No big commitment to download an app, only to have it sit unused.

This also makes up for the web's historical shortcoming (compared to apps) in the area of reliability. Simply by accessing a website, the user gains the ability to work offline. The user doesn't have to decide to download an app. But, the more functionality she accesses on the brand's website, the more of an app experience she acquires. Progressively.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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