The global mobile population reached a staggering 3.7 billion users in January this year with the devices accounting for almost half of all web page views worldwide. With mobile usage reaching an all-time high, businesses have no choice but to target customers on mobile devices. The question, however, is how they should target them. There has been a long-standing debate as to whether it’s better to develop native apps or responsive websites. Ultimately the aim is to provide an exceptional mobile user experience with no barriers due to device, network status or load speed. This is where progressive web apps (PWAs) have come into their own.
What Are Progressive Web Apps?
To put it simply, a progressive web app is a mobile app that is delivered through the web. The principal point of difference is that it doesn’t need to be downloaded from an app store. By delivering apps in this way, developers can bring together the best of both worlds and create an enhanced user experience.
Progressive web apps load like regular web pages, but it is the functionality that differs. They act and feel like an app, are able to work offline and deliver push notifications. These features were previously only available to native mobile applications, which makes this emerging technology a definite game changer for customer experience.
How Do Progressive Web Apps Work?
Progressive web apps use an app shell that allows them to use app-style gestures and navigations. They are developed using technologies, APIs and specific patterns that allow them to take advantage of both web and native app features. This is done with the help of service workers. Service workers are scripts that browsers run in the background to enable features that can run independently of user interaction. Service workers enable a web app to load instantly, and pre-caching ensures the app stays up to date at all times, delivering the most recent version to its users.
The most recent developments in browsers and service workers have enabled developers to allow users to install web apps to their home screens, receive push notifications and work offline. When browsing a website, users may recognise the telltale ‘add to home screen’ button that effectively installs the app. Once added to the home screen the application can hide the browser controls and appears remarkably like a native app.
The Characteristics Of Progressive Web Apps
To be classified as a progressive web app, developers need to build in the following key characteristics:
- Progressive – they must be fully functional on the newest browsers and also usable at a basic level on old browsers.
- Discoverable – as a PWA is a website it must be discoverable on search engines.
- Installable – it must be possible to install it onto the user’s home screen to make it easily accessible.
- Linkable – the web app should reload its state when the user shares its URL.
- Responsive – the web app should be usable on any device.
- App-like – it should look like a native app, require minimal refreshes and offer similar services such as push notifications.
- Connectivity-independent – it should be independent of a user’s network and able to work offline.
- Safe – it must be secure against third parties trying to access sensitive data.
The Benefits Of Progressive Web Apps
Progressive web apps incorporate the best elements of mobile websites and native apps while managing to mitigate their disadvantages. This combination allows them to be more efficient than native apps while still delivering their many unique selling points. There are many benefits of PWAs, the following of which are driving the change towards more predominant usage:
- Work on-demand – they are always accessible without needing to take up a smartphone’s memory or data. They also don’t require the hassle of a download with a potentially lengthy installation.
- Less consumer buy-in required – users have to make a conscious decision to download and keep a native app. Removing friction points, such as leaving a website to go to an app store, has the power to increase installs substantially. According to Comscore Mobile App Report, over 50% of America’s smartphone users download zero apps a month. Clicking a link takes much less consideration and easily entices users to take action. PWA reduces the steps between discovery of an app and getting it on the home screen and thereby eliminates friction points.
- More economical – they are faster to build and update, which equates to a considerable cost saving. What’s more, you only need one version of the app that will work on all devices rather than dealing with a segmented market between the likes of iOS and Android. On top of cheaper development costs, the user acquisition cost of web apps can also be ten times less expensive than that of native apps. This is due to higher exposure and low friction for on-boarding. The combined result is that PWAs are able to produce a much higher return on investment.
- Reduced updates and downtime – when PWAs update they only change content that has been refreshed. In contrast native apps often force users to re-download the entire application. Apps can create a frustrating user experience when they need downtime or stall unexpectedly, not to mention the issue when there is no space on the device for an update to install.
Amongst the many success stories of PWAs to date, the best known is Flipkart Lite. In 2015 the company, India’s largest e-commerce site, rebuilt as a PWA. The result was an incredible 70% increase in conversions. Based on the potential financial gain and the low barrier to entry the benefits of PWAs are indisputable.
The Future Of PWAs
As we’ve discussed, recent trends show that people are engaging less with apps. This means that native apps need to be exceptional to succeed. Meanwhile, the lower barrier to entry of PWAs evens the playing field and allows all businesses to adopt a mobile-first approach. Big players such as Google, Apple and Microsoft have supported PWAs in their recent updates and are driving the change towards PWAs as the standard.
Progressive Web Apps’ mobile-first approach to building websites and connecting with customers is paving the way for the future. Smaller businesses that are yet to develop native apps, or even responsive websites, are now in a really strong position. They can skip straight to a PWA as a replacement for a mobile site, while those already invested will need to migrate their presence to the progressive approach.