The Internet Changed Everything!
Let’s start back in the late 1990s to early 2000s, at the very beginnings of an age where the Internet would become a necessity for nearly half of the world population. The Internet was an excellent place to distribute various applications because it could reach anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. It instantly replaced the brick and mortar solutions that existed before which required users to go to a local store and buy a piece of the hardware storage device. Buying computer programs in the 1990s meant getting it installed on floppy disks (a 3D printed version of the save icon). The Internet allowed companies and individuals to distribute applications on the Internet seamlessly. If we fast forward to today, nearly all software is distributed online. This includes digital versions of games, Office 365 and installing browsers like Chrome (imagine walking down to your local BestBuy to get a free copy of Google Chrome on a USB Stick).
Web Apps vs Native Apps
If the Internet is so great, why do we download apps from the app store or Play Store? The apps we download from these native digital distribution platforms are called native apps. These apps are native to the Operating System (OS), meaning that they are coded for a particular OS. The scenario is entirely different on the desktop where we use apps like Gmail in our browsers. These applications are appropriately called web apps as they only run in the browser and are not OS specific (Gmail on Chrome is the same on Mac and PC). Developers find web-based applications to be superior as they have a much broader reach on the web and are simpler to code. If web-based apps are so good, then why don’t we, the users, use them more often on mobile? While you likely use Gmail on Chrome, you probably use the Gmail App on your mobile phone, rather than using Gmail on a mobile browser. You aren’t alone. The average user spends over 85% of their time in native mobile apps. This is because native apps have certain advantages over web apps.
Plain Web Apps Just Don’t Cut It
Many problems, such as performance issues, lack of push notifications, offline usage and the lack of a home screen icon have plagued mobile web apps. All these issues played a critical role in making web apps feel like a weaker variant of native apps, despite the undeniable upside of web-based apps. Since native apps are downloaded, they are much quicker to launch compared to launching a web app from a mobile browser. Additionally, the lack of push notification made it hard for web-based apps to be useful in a world where users spend an ever-increasing amount of time in the notification tray. Even though many native apps like Instagram require users to have an Internet connection, they are still able to display the user interface and some cached data. The lack of web apps to do the same has prevented them from being considered actual “apps.” Lastly, the exclusion of a home screen icon has prevented web apps from gaining traction as most users find it inconvenient to open a browser to access an app. All of these problems can be categorized under lower user engagement, which is catastrophic to any app.
As Long As It’s Progressive
The culmination of these issues is where Progressive Web Apps or PWAs come into the picture. While the term “Progressive Web Apps” was only coined in 2015 by a Google Chrome engineer, the idea behind it has existed long before that. The idea was to make web-based technologies feel and act like native apps. Progressive Web Apps have eliminated nearly all of the problems mentioned earlier with vanilla web apps and are being widely adopted throughout the industry. The support and adoption that PWAs have received from leading tech companies like Google suggest that PWAs represent the future of apps in general. The rise of PWAs is a win-win situation for both developers and consumers.
A Developer Focused Initiative
The current rapid growth of PWAs has partly been fueled by its positive perception among the developer community. This developer backing is vital as, without a dedicated community of developers, progressive web apps would not have taken off due to the lack of apps that these developers would churn out. Luckily, leading software companies like Google and Microsoft are heavily investing tools that will aid developers in making PWAs. Google’s open-source Lighthouse project, helps developers quickly and successfully modify regular web apps to fit the existing PWA standard. Besides, updates to Google’s Chrome DevTools are only making the coding simpler for developers. Developers are inclined to utilize these developer tools as it saves them a lot of time and resources. PWAs replaces the need for a separate native Android app and a native iOS app, with merely one universal application. Most developers prefer web apps as they are written in standard web technologies (HTML, CSS and JS). These languages are much simpler and modern compared to OS-specific languages like Java for Android or Objective-C/ Swift for iOS. With a robust development ecosystem and simplicity surrounding them, PWAs have attracted a healthy developer base that is only growing.
Progressive Web Apps > Plain Web Apps
With PWAs’ ability to load fast, integrate with the OS, and operate reliably, PWAs are seen as a substantial competitor to native applications. To begin, PWAs can be launched from the same place as native apps — the home screen. PWAs will also be able to send notifications to the notifications tray and operate in a full-screen mode. All these features will make PWAs as integrated as native apps, making it difficult for users to discern the difference between the two. Furthermore, PWAs are capable of storing cache data straight on the device itself, allowing users to open the app while offline and use the app in flaky connections. By providing a meaningful offline experience, PWAs are one step closer from being perceived as a futile web app to a full-fledged app. Additionally, the developers behind PWAs recognize the idea that time is money and have ensured that PWAs perform smoothly on mobile devices. Load times are seen as a considerable downside of web apps as typical web applications take 3 seconds to load. However, PWAs leverage a variety of technologies to load much quicker with average load times being around the 1-second mark. These features are genuinely game-changing and put PWAs mostly on par with existing native applications. As Google Developer Advocate Dam Dutton puts it,
“[PWAs] are reliable, fast and engaging.”
An Emerging Initiative in Emerging Markets
PWAs come with a unique set of advantages over native apps that have helped them take emerging markets by storm. The ability of PWAs to operate in poor connections has proven to be remarkably useful in developing nations. PWAs only save small bits of data each time, making them more efficient compared to downloading a sizeable native application. According to Uber and Twitter developers, PWAs work great with 2G connections which are most common in emerging nations, like India. Also, PWAs are much more lightweight, allowing them to operate on lower-end devices with relatively weak processors and smaller storage capacities. As many programmers have pointed out, a PWA counterpart of their native application takes significantly less space. In some cases, they are up to 90% lighter. With these crucial features, PWAs are opening up a host of day-to-day applications, like Google Maps, that you and I use to hundreds of millions of new users in developing nations.