Apps are faltering. But progressive web apps seem pretty legit.

Lately there’s been considerable debate about the future of native apps, ranging from the cooling of downloads to the dubious utility of instant apps and assumptions about progressive web apps as heir apparent to native apps.

It’s anyone’s guess what the next few years will yield, but it brings to mind pg. 91 from a book I wrote in 2007. While most of the book became technologically irrelevant not more than a year after publishing, there’s one argument that has withstood nearly a decade of digital disruption:

The success of the web, as we know it today, is largely due to one piece of software: the browser. I can access nearly any website, application (including email) … with that one browser.
To assume users will be satisfied downloading an app¹ for every site they frequent, or for every content provider they associate themselves with, is to assume users have adequate storage space on their devices and that they are willing to pay the costs, both data and time, to download these apps.
In all likelihood, most users will probably download an app for a couple of their favorite products, but beyond that, a browser will be — or should be — sufficient for interacting with web content.

Proud papa of that prediction, though I don’t dare assume it will withstand another decade of disruption.

Yet I’m very intrigued by the future of progressive web apps (or PWA for short) as a further manifestation of what I predicted. The term was coined by Alex Russell and Frances Berriman over dinner in June 2015, but only recently has it gained respectable traction in the media.

All signs point to progressive web apps as having some serious potential to eliminate the need for native apps and return the usage throne to browsers.²

Consider Patagonia. They’ve bid farewell to their iPhone app, claiming the Patagonia website is beautiful and functional in all mobile web browsers. “You may delete [our native app] from your device.”

Brash move or rash decision? Either way, native apps are dead to Patagonia.

Less controversial is Snapdrop, a shining example of a progressive web app. It’s like Apple’s AirDrop but through any browser, any device on the same network. Type snapdrop.net in the URL bar of any browser and share files with any other device connected to the service within your network. No app needed.

Snapdrop progressive web app

Unlike AirDrop, Snapdrop seems to work every time.

Progressive unity

Over the past couple years I’ve made the rounds at numerous conferences pitching the idea of Unified Design. In a nutshell, Unified Design presents a functionally and aesthetically cohesive product experience across endless screens and platforms, regardless of where the experience starts, continues, and ends. Think of adding a product to your Amazon cart at work with a desktop browser and finishing checkout in bed using the Amazon smartphone app. It just works.

Slide deck for Unified Design talk

The need for Unified Design has been amplified by the growing disconnect between a product’s native app and its web app (or website) counterpart. Often the two are functionally and aesthetically disparate and, in some cases, dysfunctional.

Progressive web apps are, at least in theory, inherently unified. There is no native app, m-dot URL, or separate database to speak of. It just works. In any browser and on any device. In theory. Of course, browsers often choke on theory, despite their best efforts to be ‘progressive’ in the traditional sense of the word.

Vive la app

In truth, I don’t anticipate native apps will die off anytime soon. But I’m warming to the idea that they may be less relevant to the future of the web, and I reaffirm that “a browser will be — or should be — sufficient for interacting with web content.”

Progressive web apps are poised to be remarkably relevant to the future of the web. Let’s not screw it up.


¹ In 2007 the word “app” didn’t really exist. Instead we had terms like “smart client” and “thin client”. I’ve replaced instances of these terms in the excerpt quoted here with terms more familiar to today’s readers i.e. “app”.
² Let’s be realistic. Is there any chance Candy Crush will be a progressive web app anytime soon? Highly debatable. How about Snapchat as a progressive web app? Also debatable, but far more plausible. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to argue why Snapchat shouldn’t be available within the browser.

Additional reading