2015 was the year mobile search finally overtook desktop search and in 2016, the search engine giant updated their algorithm to “primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site”, essentially moving to a mobile-first indexing. Thanks to this surge in mobile web search, quite a number of Google’s initiative in web development in the past couple of years has been primarily directed at improving the mobile web experience, first with their AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) initiative and later, when they introduced the concept of Progressive Web Apps, or PWA for short.
When it comes to targeting customers on mobile devices, business owners used to be limited to only two choices, designing their website to be as mobile-friendly as possible or develop a native mobile app for placement on Google’s Play Store or Apple’s App Store. A mobile website has the highest rate of accessibility and usually works well for everyone but aren’t the most ideal when it comes to user experience and functionality. As the yang to the mobile website’s yin, native mobile apps offer a superior experience but ask a certain level of commitment and resource from their users; they have to be downloaded first from the app store and are usually required to be set up first before they could be properly used.
Compare the experience you get from using Twitter from a web browser and the one you get from an App Store. Think of it as the difference between listening to music from a record and going to a live concert. The former requires much less effort, more comfortable and is available anytime but there’s just no way for records to be able to replicate the sheer rush of dopamine you get from experiencing Tame Impala on a live stage. But what if there’s a way for you get the best of both worlds without getting shortchanged from the compromise? Well then, let me introduce you to my dear friend, the latest trend in web development, Progressive Web Apps.
In the most basic terms, PWAs are basically mobile apps accessed from the web. It looks like a native app, it swims like a native app, it quacks like a native app but it’s free from the hassle normally associated with a native app. It’s still very much a work-in-progress so it can’t fully replicate everything a native mobile app can do as of now but due to the fact that cross-platform compatibility is no longer a concern, it’s considerably simpler to develop and to maintain. Some of the key takeaways from PWAs include:
- No need for the middleman
If you think being discovered through a search engine is hard enough, think again. Your platform’s App Store is usually filled with shovelware and copycat apps and discovering something that would suit your purpose without the help of a curator is the very definition of a sisyphean task. As PWAs are delivered through the free web, you can skip this process entirely and this also means that standard SEO strategies could help your discoverability. This also means that you’re asking much less of a commitment from your potential customers, lowering the barrier of entry to just visiting a website.
- The looks and functionality of a native app
This is possible thanks to the usage of two technologies, the application shell architecture and service workers. The app shell is what gives PWAs the look of a native mobile app, it offers full-screen capabilities, adapts to whatever device you’re using and as the UI is cached locally, it’s blazingly fast. To offer you the native app experience, PWAs use what is called service workers, which without getting too technical, allows PWAs to use push notifications for new contents, adding an icon on a phone’s home screen for quick access, background sync when not in use and crucially, offline caching, allowing you to still access to some of their functionality on less ideal network conditions.
- Less hassle, less space, less problem
PWAs are lighter, much lighter in fact, than the corresponding native mobile app. A glance on the Twitter page in the iOS App Store lists its size at a sizable 184.5 MB while Twitter Lite, the Twitter PWA you can access from any browser comes in under a measly 1 MB. That’s less than 1% percent when compared to its native web app. In addition, as your website could act as its own mobile app, this could potentially cut down on the amount of resource and effort you have to put in when you’re maintaining your website and native mobile app as two separate entities.
PWAs have been getting a lot of buzz as the future of web development, especially when it comes to the mobile web experience and even though it still hasn’t gained enough ground to completely replace native web apps, especially for the more complex ones, it has now reached a point that some brands and/or companies have designed their websites in this way. One notable example is the aforementioned Twitter Lite while others include the independent project Offline Wikipedia and the news website Forbes. Now, as a business owner, it’s still ultimately your decision whether to go down this route or not but a recent report on Tech Crunch stated that 51% of smartphone users download a total of zero apps per month on average while as of February this year, Apple has officially supported PWAs by introducing service workers to its Safari browser, joining other notable web browsers Chrome, Opera and Firefox with Edge and the Samsung Internet Browser closing in behind.