Why Progressive Web Apps (PWA) is not good news for Native and Hybrid app developers

This a three-part blog series about Progressive Web Apps. The second blog article, Progressive Web App VS Responsive Web App touches upon the how Responsive web app can evolve to become a Progressive Web App. The third article is being written.

We all have many apps installed on our smartphones. We use them for all kind of things that we could only dream about a few years ago. This is due to the ubiquitousness of mobile apps that try to fill in everything electronically possible by the smart phone. Because of this, there are situations when we have more than one mobile app for even the simplest functionalities.

If you take a look at the apps installed on your mobile right now there might be at least a dozen apps that you use only once in a while. But those rarely used apps serve a genuine purpose. Be it booking a movie ticket or hotel room or a train ticket, pay utility bills, find a dentist in a specific locality or find the best Sushi bar in the city you are visiting. But the reality is you wouldn’t need a native app for these functions. The majority of the activities performed by these apps are done when the phone has an active internet connection.

The irony is that most of these apps have a fully responsive website counterpart performing the same functions. So why waste your precious disk space and your internet data on your smartphone by installing the native app? The average size of apps that we install from app stores would range from 30-200MB. Moreover, these app needs to updated every week!

One of the fundamental reasons we prefer apps over responsive web pages is that we find apps better reachable with their omnipresence in the smart phone thru their vibrant and well-thought-out icons on the home screen. What if a website can do that and much more, like push notification and offline support? This is what Progressive Web Apps (PWA) are trying to accomplish.

What are Progressive Web Apps?

Progressive Web App as technically regular web pages but can appear to the user like traditional applications or (native) mobile applications. This new application type attempts to combine features offered by most modern browsers with the benefits of mobile experience. Currently, Progressive Web Apps are fully supported in Android OS thru their Chrome browser using “Add to Home Screen” feature.

Progressive Web Apps are run in a secure container accessible to anyone on the web using their mobile Chrome browser. As they are accessed and installed using an URL from the mobile Chrome browser they do not require the painful process of installing the app thru the Play Store. They will be progressively enhanced and introduce simple, yet powerful new concepts, such as:

  • Responsiveness: The UI must fit the device’s form factor: desktop, mobile, and tablet.
  • App-like feel: When interacting with a Progressive Web App, it feels like a native app.
  • Connectivity Independent: It will work offline (via Service Workers) or in areas of low connectivity.
  • Re-engageable: Through features like push notifications, users should are able to consistently engage and reuse the app.
  • Installable: A user should be able to add it on their home screen and just launch it from there whenever they need to reuse the app.
  • Discoverable: Easily identified as applications and be discoverable by search engines.
  • Fresh: Serve new content in the app when the user is connected to the internet.
  • Safe: Served via HTTPS to prevent content tampering and man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • Progressive: Regardless of the browser choice, it should work for every user.
  • Linkable: Easy to share via URL.

Progressive Web App from an App User perspective

One of the biggest advantages of PWA is its low footprint in downloading and installing an app. For example, twitter offers a PWA app. To give it a try go to https://mobile.twitter.com on your Android phone using the mobile Chrome browser. The initial download of the app is around ~350Kb and subsequently 5Kb from the use of caching and service workers. 

PWAs are ideal for users on slower networks as it loads pages faster and offers all the features of the native app in a less resource intensive format.

Progressive Web App from an App Publisher perspective

For an app publisher, the biggest advantage is the cost saving in terms of app development and maintenance. It is a generally accepted fact that app development companies are more inclined towards building native apps or hybrid apps. The complex native app development process is further complicated with support for different platforms, versions, and devices.

When Google devised the concept of Progressive Web App they worked with several companies like The Washington Post, The GuardianThe Weather ChannelFlipkartAlibaba, and AliExpress for their app development strategy and helped them build a better mobile web presence. One of the key matrixes for any marketing team is the average customer acquisition cost. Selio,  a local marketplace app, declared that their average customer acquisition cost for Progressive Web Apps is a whopping 10 times lesser than for native apps. 

Conversion is another key matrix which explains the actual transactions made by acquired customers. After implementing their Progressive Web App, AliExpress saw conversion rates for new users increase by 104%. This investment in the mobile web also resulted in conversion rates on Safari increasing by 82%. The new strategy also delivered a much better experience. Users now visit twice as many pages per session, and time spent per session increased an average of 74% across all browsers.

Progressive Web App from an App Developer perspective

Unfortunately, it is not good news for Native and Hybrid app developers. The sheer effort and time that to go into a Native or Hybrid app development, release and support are considerably large when compared to PWAs. As I mentioned before, most of the apps that we use right now can easily be converted to PWAs and once done, will not require a dedicated team of Native or Hybrid app developers. If you really look into the requirements of the App publishers, a Progressive Web Apps would suffice their needs, 90% of the time.

The winning team here are the web developers. Progressive Web Apps is not one technology. It is one name for a set of technologies that you can use to progressively expose app-like qualities to go with your regular website. If web developers acquire the skills for creating an excellent, fully responsive web page, they should be able to easily add the extra functionalities for the PWA like push notification, off-line support, and smooth transitions.

But one of the main hurdle that Progressive Web Apps are facing right now iOS support. Features such as “Add to Home Screen”, off-line support push notifications, etc. are available in some form in Safari but are not implemented in standard Progressive Web Apps way. With that said early evidence indicates that Progressive Web Apps perform better on iOS than the sites they replace. Webkit, the open source engine used by Safari and App Store for OS X and iOS seems to be listening to the demand for Progressive Web Apps. They seem to have added PWA support to their Five Year Plan where they say “Becoming a more frequent request. We should do it.”. If Apple were to bring in the support for PWA then the Mobile App development industry would change it’s course and will head in a new direction.