What are Progressive Web Apps & Why Should You Care?

We surely love native mobile apps. They look great, feel great, load offline and even deliver beacon-triggered notifications when we do shopping. It’s no wonder there are over 4 million applications on the App Store and Google Play!

Businesses, however, do not share our enthusiasm. With 30% of all e-commerce transactions coming from mobile, apps have evolved into a powerful brand awareness and customer acquisition channel. The demand for enterprise mobile apps will soon outstrip the available dev capacity by 500% (which means higher hourly rates). Even if you partner with an offshore company, you can’t build an app for less than $ 10 thousand (there’s no talking about next Uber here). Unfortunately, you can’t stick to one platform since your target audience most likely uses both Android and iOS smartphones (multiply the dev costs by two).

Things get even more complicated when it comes to starting an app business. Long gone are the days when simple games like Flappy Bird became instant hits. The market is overcrowded with apps. According to Gartner, less than 0.01% of all mobile apps will be considered commercially successful through 2018 (and most likely beyond). Here’s why:

· Although smartphone owners now spend 85% of their mobile time in apps, only 5 applications see heavy use. What are they? Obviously, social media and messengers. You must build a very good app to compete with Facebook;

· Snowman, an independent software development studio from Toronto, released their famous Alto’s Adventure game in early 2015 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Although the Snowman guys surely put a lot of effort into their project, the game would’ve never done half as good if it weren’t for positive reviews and Apple’s interference (promotion on Twitter, best new game feature). Despite the App Store’s attempts to improve discoverability through paid search, the chances users will find your app unless they look for it on purpose are relatively small;

· In order to engage users and take full control of the iOS/Android ecosystems, both Google and Apple have made significant changes to their submission guidelines (which do not always align to vendors’ expectations);

· The interval between finding, downloading and installing an app (and getting value from it) is rather lengthy. Only 60% of users who actually install your app bother to open it. With each step (sign up, create content, share application on social media) you lose a significant amount of customers. The Cost Per Install parameter (CPI) meanwhile ranges from $ 2 to $ 3 for most iOS/Android apps. Is the game really worth the candle?

· According to recent studies, most users do not feel comfortable installing multiple apps on their smartphones. Some of them worry about storage, others disagree with the app requirements and privacy policies.

“Ok, what if I develop a web application instead? They’re less expensive, take up little space and seamlessly run on any smartphone — regardless of what operating system it uses”.

That’s what entrepreneurs for whom building an app is not a core business often think. It’s fair to say that hybrid applications (mobile websites built with HTML5, CSS and JavaScript which run in a native container) have improved over time. With Apache Cordova and some excellent JS libraries, you can craft a high-performance app which would use native code and possess multiple native features (including access to a phone’s camera, accelerometer, GPS data and such).

By creating a hybrid app, your company would solve the portability (build once, run anywhere), cost of development and maintenance issues. However, your target audience will still need to download the app prom Google Play and the App Store (the latter is not keen on web apps in the first place). There’s the app funnel problem, too.

And that’s why some developers believe Progressive Web Apps are the future of mobile application development.

Progressive Web Applications: definition, requirements and advantages

In a nutshell, a Progressive Web App (PWA) is a combination of Web APIs, technologies and design concepts which create native app experience in a mobile browser. PWAs are deployed to servers, can be accessed through URLs and get indexed by search engines.

Aaron Gustafson (web standards and accessibility advocate at Microsoft) once compared PWAs to M&Ms (a peanut is the app content, chocolate coating is the presentation layer and a JS framework is the icing). The “icing” level may perform different functions depending on the mobile browser the app runs in.

A progressive app should meet several requirements, including:

· Demonstrate the capability to run in any mobile browser;

· Provide Web hosting;

· Support multiple gadgets (including smartphones, desktops and PCs);

· Use service workers (technology which displays the data retrieved during previous sessions);

· Work offline;

· Load fast (53% of users will abandon a website if it fails to load within 3 seconds);

· Employ application shell (minimal user interface created with JavaScript, HTML and CSS) to provide app-like user experience (including interactions and simple navigation; this is the UI that will load regardless of the Internet signal strength);

· Contain a JS Object Notation file which enables developers to control the way an app is displayed to users;

· Secure the app environment and user data through the HTTPS protocol;

· Give users an opportunity to “bookmark” it on a home screen and download the full version later on;

· Re-engage users (for example, using push notifications);

· Provide fresh content an upgrade automatically once a user connects to the Web.

By taking the progressive approach, companies can significantly improve their hybrid apps built with JavaScript and JS frameworks (Angular, React, Polymer, etc.). As of now, PWAs are supported by all Chromium-based web browsers (including Google Chrome and Opera); Safari and Microsoft’s Edge still hesitate.

The advantages of Progressive Web Applications

· Wider reach. The average smartphone owner uses about 25 mobile apps per months. The number of websites visited over the same period of time exceeds 100;

· Lower friction. A user doesn’t have to install an app to decide whether he needs it or not. Having bookmarked the app on his home screen, he can download its full version any time he wants. As a result, the Cost per Install diminishes, and you could spend the money on re-engaging the existing app users instead;

· Access to new markets. As mentioned above, PWAs should load fast no matter how strong the Internet signal is. This gives your company a perfect opportunity to enter emerging markets where 2G still dominates.

If you’re not sure PWAs can successfully compete with native applications, here are some use cases to prove you wrong.

Progressive Web Apps: success stories

Flipkart, the largest Indian e-commerce marketplace worth of $ 5.54 billion (November 2016), has built a PWS and increased conversion rates and time users spend on their site by 70% and 300%, respectively. According to Amar Nagaram, Flipkart’s Engineering Director, building a high-performance mobile website enabled the company to engage customers who didn’t want to download and install their app for some reason.

Air Berlin, Germany’s second-largest airline, introduced their PWA during the annual Google developer conference in June. The app enables Air Berlin customers to download their boarding pass in an offline mode after the initial check-in process, receive push notifications regarding flight schedule and gate changes and access useful travel information.

Although Safari does not support PWAs yet, a progressive application helped AliExpress (one of the largest and most successful e-commerce companies in the world) to increase iOS conversion by 82% and double the number of page visits per user.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, of course. Going progressive was an obvious choice for Flipkart whose target audience typically uses 2G to access their website; your goals might be different. When choosing between native and progressive web apps, you should consult a reliable software development company to define your target audience, decide on your app’s functionality and choose the right tech stack.