Software

How to find and install Progressive Web Apps

With Chrome Web Apps discontinued for Windows, Mac and Linux users, here are some ways to find alternatives and explore Progressive Web Apps.

Image of Phone with PWA app icon viewed through a magnifying lens
Image: Andy Wolber / TechRepublic (Unofficial PWA icon by Diego González)

In December 2017, Google removed the ability to search for Chrome Web Apps from the Chrome Web Store on anything other than a Chrome OS device. You can search the G Suite Marketplace and Google Play store, respectively, for web apps or Android apps to replace Chrome Web Apps. Or you might search the Chrome Web Store for extensions that replace Web Apps, as well.

Chrome extensions and themes remain available for Windows and macOS users of Chrome, but Chrome Web Apps can no longer be found from those devices. For example, https://remotedesktop.google.com offers an alternative to the Chrome Remote Desktop app, downloadable apps replace the Signal Chrome Web App, and native system drivers server replace the HP Print for Chrome app on Windows and macOS devices.

Screenshot of the Chrome Web Store menu with Chrome Web Apps listed (right) on Chrome OS, and omitted in Chrome on other desktop platforms.

On Windows, macOS, and Linux, Google removed Chrome Web Apps (left) from the Chrome Web Store. Chromebooks and other Chrome OS devices still have access to Chrome Web Apps (right).

Google promotes Progressive Web Apps not only as the alternative to Chrome-specific apps, but also as the next generation of web apps. The term describes a set of features that results in a web-app that may be installed on a home screen much like a native app, allow offline use, support push notifications, and work with multiple browsers—Chrome, Edge, Firefox, and Safari—on mobile and desktop devices. (For a more comprehensive list of PWA features, see Google's Progressive Web App checklist.)

Essentially, when you install a PWA, you'll see an icon on your screen that looks just like every other installed app, but actually opens the PWA. The idea is that the added features of Progressive Web Apps take web apps beyond the boundaries of a single desktop browser platform.

One of the most prominent examples of a PWA is Twitter Lite. Launched in April 2017, it provides a fast, app-like experience that saves data, and supports push notifications and offline access when accessed from any browser that supports Progressive Web Apps. To be clear, offline access means you can continue to browse cached tweets from your main stream or lists that you've accessed: You'll see a "Sorry, Twitter is taking too long to load" message with a "Try again" button when you reach the end of the cached data. Progressive Web Apps rely on service workers, which are scripts that run in the background that can accept and cache network requests, as well as receive push notifications.

Screenshots as described. PWA install icon is house-shaped, with a plus in the middle.

In a browser that supports Progressive Web Apps, such as Firefox Beta on Android shown here, you'll see a prompt that explains installation (left). The install process takes two taps (middle). A PWA, such as Twitter Lite (right), can appear app-like, without browser navigation elements.

Discovering Progressive Web Apps can be a bit of a challenge though. One way to discover a PWA is to visit a site that works as a PWA. You may see a notification that you can add the app to your Home screen. Then with two taps — one on the add app icon, and another on the "+Add to Home Screen" message — you'll have installed it.

Left screenshot shows URL bar and browser navigation elements, which are not displayed when Outweb.io runs as a PWA.

Outweb.io offers a searchable site that that highlights Progressive Web Apps. The site is shown here on Android within Chrome (left), and when installed to the home screen and run as a Progressive Web App (right).

However, there's no singular, central database of Progressive Web Apps. When I looked in early January 2018, the best searchable site for PWAs I found was Outweb.io, which, of course, can be installed to your home screen as a PWA. A different site, PWA.rocks, also showcases a much smaller number of PWAs and lacks search. Cloud Four highlights Progressive Web App success stats at PWA Stats.

Progressive Web Apps solve a few significant problems. You can install a PWA without signing in to an app store. A PWA app login can be handled like any standard web sign-in process. Caching and service workers helps people work when a network isn't consistently available. I expect the number of PWAs to increase as Edge and Safari join Chrome, Firefox, and Opera in support of PWA.

Your take?

Has your organization already adopted PWAs? If you're selecting software or planning a web app are the features of Progressive Web Apps part of your requirements? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@awolber).

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About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Albuquerque, NM with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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