Are Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) the future of mobile?

There are two types of businesses in today’s mobile-first world: businesses that have a mobile app and those that do not. The one thing that these two sides have in common is that both are looking towards progressive web apps (PWAs) and wondering what the impact of this new app experience will be and how it will change the mobile world.

Businesses that have already invested in developing a native mobile app are looking at PWAs cautiously. While these new apps represent a new frontier to be explored and leveraged to improve and expand on an existing app experience, they also have the potential to elbow native apps out of the spotlight. Thus, these companies may find that their investment into a native app was not as long-term as they anticipated.

On the other side of the coin, companies that have yet to invest in a mobile app are looking at PWAs hungrily because they present an easier and more affordable alternative to developing an app experience. For the late app bloomers, it's also a chance to get ahead of the game by delivering a superior web-based app experience that rivals their competitors’ native apps.

What Is A Progressive Web App?

Google first brought the idea of a progressive web app to the attention of mobile app developers sometime in 2015. The company explained that this new approach to app development would remove some of the restrictions on native apps (platform-locked design, difficult to share or access), while still maintaining the same or similar level of functionality and features. This new approach was titled 'progressive web apps' because their ultimate goal was an experience that combined the best qualities of native apps with the ease and accessibility of the web.

To simplify, a progressive web app is a web-based, app experience. It functions just as a native mobile app does, but it is accessible through a mobile web browser. This makes it easier to connect more users to the "app," without having to sacrifice much in the way of features or functionality. In a lot of ways, PWAs even function better than their native counterparts.

How Do Progressive Web Apps Fit Into The Future Of Mobile?

The future is always uncertain, and PWAs certainly muddle the foresight of app developers. What we do know for sure is that mobile app experiences are not going anywhere except for up. The question then becomes which app approach, progressive web app or native, will carry the trend in that upwards direction.

One school of thought is that PWAs will be exceedingly more popular than native apps in the near future. Some even suggest that the entire mobile app future will be in web-based app experiences. This may seem radical given how many native apps populate our phone screens, but this scenario isn't as far-fetched as it may seem.

The most significant advantages of PWAs are the most considerable downfall of native apps. Specifically, it is incredibly hard to connect users to a native app. Not only does a person have to be made aware that the app exists in the first place, but then they must endure a long journey to actually download and use that app. Not to mention, apps have to be published to the App Store, Google Play or another marketplace, which introduces a tedious third party to the mix.

Progressive web apps don’t require any app store or long process to access. You can connect users to your app experience with a simple URL link. This also makes PWAs much more shareable. Users can connect their friends to your app by sharing the same link. This is a big issue that native apps have always struggled with. Our culture, especially on the Internet, loves to share anything and everything. That’s why every successful social media platform allows users to share the content they find. Without this shareability, it’s difficult for many native apps to gain the attention that they deserve.

The Hybrid Future Of App Development

The other way of thinking about the future of developing apps is that native and progressive web apps will be two parts of a greater app experience. In other words, the best mobile-first companies will offer both a native app and a progressive web app. For businesses that have already invested in the development of a native app, this hybrid approach could prevent that investment from going belly up in the wake of PWAs soon-to-be booming popularity.

The power of the hybrid approach to app development thrives where these two strategies separate. By offering both sides, brands will be able to generate a more robust app experience. The primary drawback to PWAs, perhaps their only drawback, is a lack of performance. This isn’t an issue for most apps because they don’t require a lot of power or performance to run, but for apps that utilize richer, performance-heavy features, it is a concern. Thus, the hybrid approach would pair the accessibility of PWAs with the performance-rich features of native apps for an overall better app experience.

To explain, companies offering both a native and PWA experience will be able to leverage the easily accessible web-based part of this experience to attract new users to their mobile efforts. Once converted, it becomes much smoother to convince those new users than to commit to downloading the full native app and unlock those more in-depth features.

The other possible hybrid app strategy will be using a native app as the primary app experience while leveraging the quick-to-market and low-cost qualities of PWAs to create one-time experiences. These ephemeral PWAs could be used to supplement other marketing efforts. For example, you could release a PWA in conjunction with a new product hitting stores. Or, a short-term PWA could add a fun element to a fundraising campaign.

App Fatigue And Its Impact On The Mobile Future

A new phenomenon afflicting mobile users is app fatigue. There are reports now showing that consumers are downloading as little as zero apps per month. This malady is caused by two key factors. First, the number of apps that are out there. Even with app stores doing their due diligence to clean up old apps that are no longer being updated or downloaded, there are still roughly 1.5 million apps available to be downloaded.

The second cause of app fatigue is that there's only so much space available on our phones. Space meaning data storage, but also the visible space on our device's home screen. No one enjoys scrolling through pages and pages of apps to find the one they want. Many mobile users feel they have enough or even too many apps on their mobile devices already. Thus, convincing them to crowd an already-populated screen with yet another app icon is getting harder and harder to do.

Progressive web apps are great at combating app fatigue, which further solidifies their future role in the mobile development world. When "downloading" a PWA, the user is just saving a URL shortcut. This means there's almost no data storage being used up, especially compared to the storage required by some native apps. It also gives users a choice if they want to save the PWA as a link or not, which means users can decide if the added clutter is worth it or not. If it isn't, that doesn't exclude them from accessing the experience; they can still enter the URL into their mobile browser and visit the app. This creates a lot more flexibility.

Progressive Web Apps Have Solidified Their Spot In The Future

Again, the future is uncertain. That said, it is unfathomable to envision a future for mobile apps that don't include, in vast numbers, progressive web apps. When you draw up their benefits, there's just too much going for them to suggest anything less than a future status as one of the best mobile app approaches, if not the best. Let’s quickly recap the highlights of PWAs:

  • Championed by Google, which is the tech-world equivalent of having Wayne Gretzky endorse your Pee Wee Hockey skills
  • Unaffected by impending app fatigue facing mobile device users
  • No app store necessary because no download is required to access
  • Shareable, so users can connect everyone they know to their new favorite apps
  • Cheap to make and quick to develop and bring to market
  • Cross-platform compatibility

And, these are just the highlights.

What is entirely less certain about the future of mobile development is the role that native apps will play. Will they coexist alongside PWAs in a hybrid approach to app development? Or, will they be nudged aside entirely by web-based apps? These are the questions plaguing mobile developers and app owners alike.

No matter what your mobile app status is, whether you’ve already created a small business app or are still in the planning and pre-development stages, your eyes should be on progressive web apps. They package and deliver so much more and for far less than a native app. It’s also important to understand that PWAs are still in their infancy. If you’re still on the fence you can simultaneously deliver a native app and PWA by using an app builder. There’s much more left to be seen as to what these web-based apps can do. As time goes on, it is likely they will rival native apps in even more ways than they already do.

Photo Credit: alphaspirit/Shutterstock

Andrew Gazdecki is the founder and CEO of Bizness Apps, a company that helps small businesses build mobile solutions to compete with big brands. Its mobile app building platform makes it possible for everyone to create a mobile app for their business. When he isn’t helping small businesses, he is out surfing in the Pacific Ocean.

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