Progressive Web-First Apps

You have a cool idea, and you don’t think “there is an app for that” yet. The path is clear, right? Build an iOS app, because the VC you are pitching has one in their pocket, and you want high ARPU customers.

When we were in the early gold rush years of mobile, this may have been the best path. There were a few things in your favor:

  • People were enjoying the novelty, and would go to the app store to checking out the cool apps of the day (akin to going to Yahoo! for cool new web sites)
  • There were a lot of popular services without polished mobile apps, so great developers had room to come in with amazing third party clients (e.g. Tweetie, which became the official Twitter client… a pretty common pattern)
  • The mobile Web wasn’t the greatest experience on early mobile
  • Graphs were up and to the right, so funding was highly available. I saw this first hand. For example, after launching the mobile apps at Walmart, if you projected forward, they would eat everything….. but the reality is that there are plateaus when you consider the time spent across various platforms, and there is room for the overall pie to still be growing fast!

Today, the opportunity to have impact is still very much there, and the world continues to keep jumping online, so the user base for your experience may still be growing, but the landscape has new challenges.

  • Many users aren’t going to the app store for discovery, are happy with the apps they have, and aren’t downloading many new ones.
  • The barrier of an app store may hurt your funnel, so the cost of acquisition for new customers may not be in your favor.
  • The reach of one platform is naturally much smaller than the meta reach of something like the Web.
  • We are moving past the “easy” years of only having to worry about 320x480, or desktop websites. Computing is going through much more unbundling, with many more form factors joining ecosystems. We need a way to build for a diverse-computing world.

What if there is another way? Progressive Web-First Apps.

Why would it ever make sense to start with a PWA experience for your new idea?

  • If you want to cast a net to reach as many people to prove out your product, the Web offers the reach. Once someone taps on a link you can get them into the experience to try without an install, and you can iterate quickly with simple A/B testing and the ability to make changes that don’t ever require an [UPDATE].
  • Chances are, you have some level of sharing. Now, no matter how a URL gets to someone, they can participate easily, and this can happen across desktop as well as mobile (and beyond). Other than some simple utilities, a huge number of my apps are getting and sending URLs out, and some are basically app browsers.
  • Speaking of desktop, while we have moved into a mobile world, many ideas can come to life in new ways on desktop and you have the ability to expand in that direction. Even today I have worked on products that have 80%+ desktop usage. Why limit yourself?

Progressive enhancement doesn’t even have to stop on the Web. If you prove things out and get to the point where you need to reach for native applications, you can! The beauty of doing things this way around though, is that you always have a funnel of new people who can access your service no matter what they are on, and for some customers they can go native if that is what they and you need.

But, starting a native app from scratch at that point sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? You have options here too. Basecamp developers in a way that lets you bring your web investment along with you:

“We just launched a major revamp of the schedule in Basecamp 3. New calendar grid, new day drill-down, new navigation across months. It’s a big change, and we rolled it out simultaneously across five platforms: Web, Windows Desktop, OS X Desktop, iOS, and Android.
Three people did the work in less than six weeks.”

This strategy gives you control when you need to truly go native, and not waste time and effort when it isn’t needed. The features that are still in Web land continue to benefit from A/B testing and releases outside of the store. Not too shabby!

There are many other ways that you can play a similar game. For example, Ionic’s latest products are a great example of leaning into the Web. Stencil allows you to future proof yourself with Web Components all the way down, giving you a fast path on the Web, but you can take that to the native land with the backing of years of plugins.


But, let’s say you didn’t start this way, and you have ignored the potential broad Web users for your product, you are probably blind to the impact falling onto the floor.

Don’t worry, it’s not too late. In fact, there is no better example of turning this around than Pinterest.

We often hear about a new launch, but how did things really play out? Zack Argyle shares his one year retrospective.

The results stunned me:

“Now for the part you’ve all been waiting for: the numbers. Weekly active users on mobile web have increased 103 percent year-over-year overall, with a 156 percent increase in Brazil and 312 percent increase in India. On the engagement side, session length increased by 296 percent, the number of Pins seen increased by 401 percent and people were 295 percent more likely to save a Pin to a board.
Those are amazing in and of themselves, but the growth front is where things really shined. Logins increased by 370 percent and new signups increased by 843 percent year-over-year. Since we shipped the new experience, mobile web has become the top platform for new signups.
And for fun, in less than 6 months since fully shipping, we already have 800 thousand weekly users using our PWA like a native app (from their homescreen).”

Those numbers are not only impressive, they once again show the synergy with the native apps, bringing in users who may end up being happy in the web experience (including those who add to home screen) or may end up with a native app. Either way, happy customers!

ASIDE: Addy Osmani put together a detailed case study with the Pinterest team, to help you understand the work that went into this.

If you think about it, Pinterest is a great use case for this. It’s the type of experience that is on the board of content and commerce. You want to share this around, and for those who catch the URLs to join in, even if they aren’t members.

Just like Henrik, I hope we see much more of this trend. I want new ideas to spring up on the web, reaching users all over the world and giving you as much of a chance as possible to click with an audience. I am reminded of a friend, who built a learning platform that spiked in traffic. It turned out that the spike was because the Philippines ministry of education had decided to go all in on his software. He found his viability through the global reach of the Web.

And, I want existing companies to realize the low hanging fruit that is: making their website modern. On the one hand you can invision new features for your existing users, but on the other you can bring a new seamless funnel that will capture many new users from the Web.

So, crack open Lighthouse. Time for you to be the next Pinterest!