The Case for Progressive Web Apps

Man holding smart phone

Till recently, there has been a clear distinction between web applications and mobile apps. A web application is accessed via a web browser, either on a desktop, tablet or mobile device. Mobile apps, on the other hand, are installed via the App Store or Google Play. Each have their own benefits and limitations – web apps are more accessible, but mobile apps provide better functionality and performance to mobile device users.

However, the divide between the two app types has recently been bridged by a new type of technology called the Progressive Web App (PWA). A PWA is at its core a web application, so it can be accessed via any web browser on any device type.

But they also inherit the benefits of a mobile app. They can be saved as a tile to a mobile devices home screen, and can leverage many of the traditionally mobile app features such as notifications, camera, USB, offline access and many more.

Let’s take a closer look at the PWA.

Benefits of a PWA

As stated above, the PWA bridges the divide between web and mobile apps. But what does this mean for businesses and society as a whole?

More businesses can offer apps

Traditional app development costs often made it unfeasible for businesses to offer a mobile app. Unlike native mobile apps, which need to be built once per platform (iOS and Android), a PWA only needs to be built once for use on all device types. This significantly reduces the development time and therefore the development costs, making it more feasible for businesses to offer a functional and performant mobile app.

Greater productivity and streamlined operations

Given that PWAs make it easier for businesses to release apps, they can now more easily develop apps for operational and business needs. PWAs can tap into many of the native handheld-device features that can be used to cater for business needs. In particular:

  • offline mode,
  • notification,
  • geolocation,
  • file access,
  • real-time communications and
  • USB.

Custom-built PWAs allow for productivity gains to be made through technology – something which has often not been financially viable in the past.

Better user experiences on mobile

The greatest hindrance of the traditional web application, when accessed via a mobile device, has been user experience. When compared to a mobile native-app experience, a web application experience was sub-par. Through various means, PWAs see major technological improvements which brings them closer in line with that of native mobile apps. They now offer a smooth and fast experience that keep users engaged.

Use cases

PWAs fundamentally allow businesses to reach a larger app userbase at a lower cost. And so, with this in mind, they can be a good fit for many B2B and B2C use cases:

  • Business Websites – given that a PWA can be saved as a tile to a user’s home screen and can receive notifications, it is a great way to share regular updates with your users and notify them when new content is available on your website.
  • Productivity Apps (B2B) – PWAs integrate well with the native device features of both desktop and mobile devices. This makes them a great option for bespoke business-related apps at=s it streamlines operations and can simplify business processes.
  • Consumer Apps (B2C) – with great device feature integration and a fast and responsive interface, PWAs work well as consumer-based apps. And given that they can be distributed without needing to go through an App Store, they are far more accessible and can be utilised by a far greater audience.
  • Utilities – PWAs are a quick and easy way to distribute utility apps such as checklists, calculators and learning resources.

Alternatives

PWAs are a new technology. The alternatives are represented by the traditional forms of application development, viz web, native and cross-platform development.

  • Web development is the process of using the native languages of the web (HTML, CSS and JavaScript) to build interactive applications delivered via a web browser.
  • Native mobile apps are apps built in the native languages of a mobile device, which is the original method of distributing mobile apps e.g. Objective C / Swift for iOS and Java / Kotlin for Android.
  • Cross-platform apps are a newer form of mobile app that attempts to leverage shared code between platforms. They are released similarly to native apps – via the app stores.

These traditional forms are well established and serve their purpose well. But they are tightly coupled with the platform that they specialise in. Businesses and consumers expect apps to be available on a broad range of device types, and this is where PWAs excel.

Compatibility

When PWAs first arrived on the development scene, they were limited by the number of native device features they could support. This meant that features such as notifications, Bluetooth and file access where out of reach for PWAs. Also, there was limited support from the primary mobile Operating System providers, iOS and Android.

Since their first release, feature compatibility and OS support have come a long way. iOS and Android have rolled out extensive support for PWAs in their latest releases, and they are even encouraging developers to opt for PWAs instead of creating dedicated app store apps when this is not strictly necessary.

Over 85% of native device features are now supported by PWAs, as stated by What Web Can Do Today. So, if you are looking to build an app and don’t need features such as Geofencing and Proximity Sensors, then a PWA is likely going to be the far more cost-effective and accessible option.

Summing up

Traditional web and mobile app development methods have long provided a robust means of delivering apps for their respective platforms. However, businesses and consumers have grown to expect apps to be far more accessible than on just one platform, be it desktop, iOS or Android.

PWAs bridge the gap between platforms and offer a much more cost-effective means of delivering apps for a broad range of use cases. Since first coming to market, the feature and OS support has grown tremendously, making them a superior choice for apps that must be widely accessible, functional and user friendly.

Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

Daniel Boterhoven

Developer and Founder @DenimDevAU. I create #apps for the web and mobile.

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