Progressive Web Apps are about more than quick load times and offline support

Progressive Web Application (PWA) is a term covering best practices for building applications that leverage the strengths of the web while addressing some of the key areas that have previously pushed developers to write native applications — offline support, home screen access and push notifications for keeping engaged.

Initially it was the promise of being able to improve an app I was working on that drew me to experimenting with building PWAs. And indeed, using the things I learned, I was able to provide a radically faster experience for users while allowing them to interact the app even if they happen to lose connectivity in a tunnel. PWAs were certainly delivering on their promise of improving the user experience for users, especially those with bad connections.

Earlier this week I attended the PWA Developer Summit in Amsterdam and saw a presentation by Tal Oppenheimer about building web experiences for the next billion and Andrew Mori about building web apps for Nigerian users. Listening to these talks, it dawned upon me that while I had been focusing on the UX improvements that Progressive Web Apps bring, PWAs really solve a much more important issue on the Web platform.

Delivering near instant load times and snappy in-app experiences are not the reason we should care about building PWAs, they are just fortunate side effects.

People who are coming online for the first time today are mostly located in developing countries and their experience connecting to the internet is radically different from what I’m used to. The majority of new users are relying on mobile networks and devices that are fairly modest. 2G networks are still the norm in many places for years to come. Data is VERY expensive. So expensive that installing an application can cost the equivalent of 5–10% of the local monthly minimum wage. Building an app that also works well in these conditions require us to rethink a lot of how we build apps.

Small thought experiment

Say you are an engineer from the USA, making $80,000/year. You are on a trip abroad. Using the internet on your phone costs $3.50/MB while roaming and in addition download speeds are capped at 100kb/s.
Would you use your phone differently under these conditions than at home? Would it seem reasonable to spend more than 20 minutes and $420 to download the latest version of Facebook’s native app (120MB) for instance?

So, while adapting Progressive Web App technologies in your app may only translate to a slightly snappier experience or less hassle for your current users, it may actually make the difference between a user in India or Africa being able to use your app or not. Mobile first and offline first take on an entirely different meaning in this setting.

If you have 20 minutes, I can highly recommend watching Tal’s talk below:

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