The death of apps (as we currently know them)

If you think about creating something for a mobile device, you’ll mostly likely immediately decide that it should be an app. And when you think of apps, you think of the app store. Every day, hundreds of apps are released on the Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store. And to get those apps on the app stores, developers are toiling away writing separate Web, iOS and Android versions of exactly the same app.

Those same developers lie awake at night praying that the functionality they are about to add will appease the app store gods and, after a lot of back and forth, their app might just be released to the public. But could this infuriating process be about to change?

There’s a new technology creeping its way into app development, and it’s called PWA or Progressive Web Apps. PWAs allow you to build something with all the functionality of a “traditional app”, but using existing web technologies. This allows you to seriously save on development costs — typically the cost of developing a PWA is about one third of the cost of a “traditional” app, and you only have to write code once in order to release your app to all devices and operating systems.

Crucially, PWAs also bypass the app store, allowing you to release your app directly to customers without needing app store approval. Functionality provided by the app store ecosystem like payments/subscriptions and notifications can easily be replicated with third party integrations of your choice, allowing you greater flexibility and less vendor lock-in.

According to Comscore Mobile App Report, over 50% of America’s smartphone users download zero apps a month. If that population isn’t installing apps, that means they aren’t browsing the app store, and probably won’t find your app.

There’s also a big benefit for your users — PWAs can be used on any device without being “installed”, and take up hardly any space on your device. There’s also nothing to “update” — updates to your PWA are done in the background without the user even noticing.

The idea of PWAs has been championed by Google, and others have followed. Big names like Twitter and Facebook, to name just a few, have both quietly released PWAs to their users in the last twelve months. Because of the huge cost saving, we predict that, in time, companies like this will stop supporting traditional apps altogether and put all their focus into web and PWA development.

If you want to try out a PWA for yourself, check out Twitter’s offering. On a mobile device, navigate your web browser to m.twitter.com and when prompted click “Add to home screen”. When you launch the app from your home screen, you’ll see a splash screen and the app will open full-screen on your device without the browser navigation bar. The interface has the familiar “app-like” feel, but it’s 100% built with web technology. All functionality including location services, offline browsing and push notifications is handled by the PWA platform.

There’s also been a lot of publicity about PWAs since Beezer featured on Dragon’s Den recently. Beezer are offering a “drag and drop” app development platform powered by PWA technology.

While this is great for something like a marketing/brochure app or a “smoke and mirrors” prototype, when it comes to building anything data-driven such as a social network or a customer feedback platform, you really need a specially developed solution. The vendor lock-in associated with using the Beezer platform is also undesirable — if Beezer change their pricing structure or terms and conditions, you’re back to the same issue as the existing app stores.

However, the underling message at Beezer is right — PWAs are the future. I believe that slowly but surely, app development will slow down in favor of PWAs. Is this the death of apps as we currently know them?

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Russ Peterson is a director of Bad Dinosaur, a software design and development agency in Scotland focused on building Minimum Viable Products through lean/agile, a collaborative “co-design” process, and good communication.

Find out more at www.baddinosaur.co.uk/services/mvp