What is a Progressive Web App? (PWA)

12 minutes to read • 28 December 2020 • App development, Digital strategy, Web development

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    The world of tech moves so quickly that it can feel impossible to remain at the bleeding edge of the latest advances. It feels like every day, something new is declared, “the future of the internet.” This label is commonly attributed to progressive web apps, or PWAs.

    The term, “progressive web app” was first coined in 2015 by Alex Russell, a Google software engineer. Ever since then, the definition of PWA (as progressive web apps are commonly referred to) has been interpreted in several different ways.

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    Contents

    What is a progressive web app?

    A PWA is a website that has some app-like functionality. This means that it will utilise features that we associate with apps, such as push notifications, caching for browsing offline, and more.

    What are good examples of Progressive Web Apps?

    The websites for Forbes, Lancôme, Twitter, and Uber are good examples of PWAs.

    What are the benefits of a Progressive Web App compared to a native app?

    There are many benefits, including being able to bypass an App Store, being device agnostic, and sometimes being cheaper to develop.

    Do I need a Progressive Web App?

    This is not necessarily the case. There is still a place for native apps. It all depends on what you are hoping to achieve through your online presence.

    What is a progressive web app?

    In truth, there is an element of the Emperor’s new clothes when it comes to the discussion of PWAs. Many tech gurus have bandied the term around without a clear and distinct definition. Even Microsoft struggle to give a straight answer about what a PWA is. When even Bill Gates is scratching his head, a clearer definition is clearly required.

    Let us help you out, Bill. In layperson’s terms, a PWA is a website that has some app-like functionality. This means that it will utilise features that we associate with apps, such as push notifications, caching for browsing offline, and more. A PWA aims to build a website that looks and feels like an app once saved to a homepage. It can be enjoyed on any device – regardless of whether it runs iOS, Android or Windows – using any browser.

    Unlike a native app, though, a PWA will not need to be installed or updated through the Apple, Windows or Google Play app stores. Users simply hit the bookmark button on their appliance and choose, “save to home screen.” This places an icon on the user’s smartphone or tablet akin to a native app and automatically takes them to site when clicked.  

    All relevant updates take place within the website. This means that that progressive web apps are written using HTML code, not the unique programming languages embraced by native apps (Objective C or Swift for iOS, Java for the Android, C# or XAML for Windows). 

    Overall, the idea of a PWA remains in the eye of the beholder – at least to an extent. All the same, there are some fundamentals to the art of a PWA, as outlined by Google. A progressive web app must be …

    • Fast – the PWA must load quickly and not leave users staring at stuttering screens. Slow websites and PWAs will always be a red flag to users
    • Integrated – the idea of a WPA is that it feels like an app, not a website. That means no annoying browser windows to complete tasks
    • Reliable – one of the big appeals of WPAs is that they work offline, or with a limited or slow internet connection
    • Engaging – as a WPA is a website, not an app, Google can track engagement levels. These will impact your page ranking and SEO strategy. This is where push notifications come into play – as well as a superior user experience

    Still confused? We don’t blame you. Here are some examples of successful WPAs

    What are good examples of Progressive Web Apps?

    If you’re still a little unsure as to what constitutes a PWA, pick up your smartphone or tablet and head to one of these popular sites.

    You will notice a theme emerging on each of these sites. They load quickly, are updated regularly and, perhaps most importantly, feel like apps. Once you get past the obligatory GPRD cookie notifications, the user interface of these sites feels like using a native app. 

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    This has yielded huge success for all of these sites – and countless others that have also embraced the PWA revolution. Bounce rates are down, traffic and conversions are up. This, surely, is the intention of any app. Why speculate to accumulate by building a native app though, if you can achieve the same results with a website?

    What are the benefits of a Progressive Web App compared to a native app?

    Is a Progressive Web App better than a native mobile app? Are apples better than pears? There is no black-or-white, right-or-wrong answer when it comes to app development. In some cases, a native app is the way to go. In others, your business would benefit greatly from designing a PWA.

    There are certainly some features that are unique to PWAs that native apps cannot match. This table outlines these core differences.

    PWA and Native AppPWA Only
    Offline functionalityAccess without a download or installation
    Tablet and smartphone-friendly navigationAccess without app store hosting
    Push notificationsEasily linkable and sharable content
    Accessibility through a home screenGoogle indexing (for SEO)
     Automatic updates
     Minimal data use and drain

    So, as you’ll see, in some cases a PWA could be considered superior to a native app. If you’re trying to reach Apple users, in particular, a PWA will bypass the need to be listed on the iOS app store. This, in turn, means that you can skip out on the lengthy – and often painful – process of having your app reviewed and approved.

    As a result, PWAs may eventually replace native apps. The reasons for this are manifold.

    Progressive web apps are cheaper design and construct

    Let’s start at the beginning. Constructing a native app can be expensive. This goes double if you need to make multiple native apps. The Apple Google Play and Windows app stores all use different programming languages, so you’ll need to build a separate native app for each store. Unless you use a cross-platform development tool, those costs can add up.

    By building a PWA, you only need to hire one designer – somebody with experience of the web. If you have these skills in-house, so much the better (though this not always advisable). A progressive web app can generate significant savings in both financial outlay and billable time for your talented team members.

    Progressive web apps work on all devices and browsers

    We just discussed how native apps all use different coding languages. Progressive web apps are built online, so they just one – HTML. This may not be quite as fancy as a native code, but it does the job and it works with all browsers.

    The great iPhone vs. Samsung (and others) debate means that different users have varying browser preferences. Some will use Safari, others Chrome, some may even use Edge or Opera. PWAs are designed to work on all – even the famously awkward Safari.

    App stores are crowded marketplaces

    Getting noticed in an app store can be a challenge. You have a limited amount of microcopy that you can use to be discovered, and there will no shortage of competition. The Google Play store alone has 2.87m apps to choose from. That’s 2.87 potential rivals for the attention of your target audience.  

    They won’t all be relevant. If your app is designed to sell cosmetics, competition from a shoot-’em-up game will not get in your way. You can also practice app store optimisation to stand a better chance of being noticed. 

    All the same, with so many apps for users to choose from, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. With a progressive web app, you can bypass app stores completely.

    Progressive web apps benefit from search engine optimisation

    We mention app store optimisation, which is essentially a localised SEO strategy for these online marketplaces. By building a progressive web app, however, you can benefit from a pre-existing SEO strategy that you have doubtlessly poured effort into.

    Remember – PWAs are not downloaded from an app store. They come straight from the home page of your master website. If you’re riding high on Google, the use of a PWA will attract plenty of attention that leads to conversions. What’s more, every time a user clicks on their PWA icon, your website gains another hit.

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    Native apps can be forgotten

    We’d like to conduct an experiment. Flip over your smartphone or tablet so you cannot see the screen. Now, write down as many native apps on the appliance that you can remember. Take a look and see how close you were.

    We’re willing to wager that you have dozens of apps that have not been used in months that you completely forgot about. You may even be thinking that you’re glad you did this – they are pretty helpful.

    All the same, those apps were sitting on your appliance, using up precious storage space and potentially draining your battery and data allowance. This will not happen with progressive web apps. 

    Progressive web apps generate greater income

    If you make sales and conversions through an app downloaded from an app store, you miss out on some of the proceeds. Google or Apple will help themselves to a percentage of any sale made through a native app. Throw in your payment processing costs and you’re staring down the barrel of a lot of dead income. 

    This is especially galling when we consider that you already need to pay to be listed on an app store. With a PWA, any profit from sales is all yours. This makes this model especially appealing for an SME with comparatively limited turnover.

    Native apps need to be manually updated – progressive web apps do not

    Likely, you are constantly undergoing audits and updates to your website. This will improve your page ranking with Google, also ironing out any kinks and bugs. You’ll need to do the same with native apps. Just like building a native app, that’s a separate skill set that requires a separate allocation of time and resource.

    What’s more, when you update a native app, you’ll need to alert users – as well as having it reviewed and accepted by the iOS store all over again. Users will then need to manually install this update on their appliances. With a PWA, all updates are applied instantly within the web page. The user doesn’t even need to know that you’ve undertaken a spring clean.

    Do I need a Progressive Web App?

    Based on the data above, you would be forgiven for assuming that building a PWA is a no-brainer. This is not necessarily the case. There is still a place for native apps. It all depends on what you are hoping to achieve through your online presence.

    If you have already designed an app, it would likely have cost a substantial amount of money. It seems unfortunate to throw away that investment and spend yet more on developing a WPA. 

    If your native app is underperforming, it’s certainly worth considering starting again from scratch with a PWA. If it is seeing the results that you’d hoped for, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You could always create a cross-platform app to upload to all possible app stores and attract the widest possible audience.

    You should also consider how much your business relies upon mobile browsing of your website. It’s true that mobile browsing now outweighs desktop use. What’s more, Google heavily penalises the page ranking of websites that are not optimised for use on mobile appliances. If the majority of your business comes from desktop browsing of through a native app, however, a PWA may muddy the waters.

    Think about your SEO, too. How are users likelier to find you – through a conventional Google search, or via their app store of choice? If you fancy your chances of outmuscling the competition and reaching page 1 of Google through your SEO strategy, then a PWA is a great option. If not, you may find that app store optimisation yields greater results. Just be aware that, as discussed, app stores can also be pretty crowded.

    Next, consider any advanced features that a native app can offer that a PWA cannot. We’re thinking in terms of snapping instant photographs or scanning images. These features are typically the exclusive realm of native apps. It can be difficult to build them into a PWA. If you feel that users consider these bells and whistles to be a dealbreaker, stick with a native app.

    We hope that this guide has shed some light into the shadowy world of PWAs. If you have more questions or would like assistance in converting your website to a PWA, don’t hesitate to contact us. Progressive web apps are a complicated subject, and you’ll benefit from having a team of experts on your side. We would be delighted to fulfil that role for your business.

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