A lot of headlines from the recent Google I/O 2016 focus on consumer product announcements; Android N, Google Home, Daydream VR and self-driving cars. But there was something else Google really wanted everyone to pay attention to… Progressive Web Apps.
The results are in, and the world went mobile. Owning a desktop-focused website in 2016 where the mobile experience is lacklustre is a guaranteed way to lose money. The desktop should be thought of as the IMAX experience of your website, a more immersive, richer, expansive experience, but one that the majority of your user won’t see. Mobile has been crowned queen, and long may she reign.
Google knows this, and for some time has been heavily investing in open tools, resources, standards and guidelines to foster a more optimised mobile web, as well as offering tangible incentives to website stakeholders like improved SEO and preferential placement in results (see AMP Project for a recent example). This investment isn’t just some goodwill gesture on Google’s part. They need the web to scale and be optimised across all devices because – news flash – the web is the main way Google generates revenue. If the web becomes a bad experience for users it could ultimately result in less engagement, which in turn could mean less revenue for Google. No company wants to lose revenue, so Google is working hard to ensure that the mobile web continues to evolve and ultimately becomes a platform which can be just as engaging and feature-rich for users as native apps are.
Introducing Progressive Web Apps
We’ve all been there. You want to load up a website or simply refresh the page to get updated content and find your phone is either excruciatingly slow or has no web at all due to not signal. Sometimes the website also offers a native app, so if you like the site you might have installed their app and expect that it would work even when you’re offline, and offer cool features like updating content in the background and sending you a notification when new content is available. Why can’t websites do this?
Mobile responsive websites have been around for some time, but the mobile web has always been at the mercy of your network connection quality. Features like push notifications and background sync have been absent. Google are hoping to change all this with Progressive Web Apps; they believe that, when implemented correctly, a Progressive Web App can actually make the mobile web app experience outperform that of a native one.
A Progressive Web App is a mix of several technologies. The most important of these is the service worker. A service worker allows for a wide variety of native-like capabilities, such as offline, background sync and push notifications. To meet the Progressive Web App standard, a website needs at least a service worker, an SSL (https) connection, a fully responsive design across phones, tablets and laptops, and a user experience that includes app-style interactions and navigation. Provided your website qualifies, you’ll receive the following benefits (note some are exclusive to Android for now):
- Full offline capability
- Device will display a native prompt to the user allowing them to quickly and easily install your web app to their home screen
- Apps will launch and load almost instantly when installed to home screen (when combined with offline capability)
- App will allow the user to opt into native push notifications
- App will be able to sync in the background (allowing it to update content)
These features truly get the Web App out of the dog house and move it several steps closer to that of a full native app. Google have also released a case study that shows Flipkart’s decision to get rid of both their native app and website, leaving only a Progressive Web App; it tripled time-on-site and increased conversions by 70%. Other case studies show similar results. So when next considering a web app for your company, it’s worth remembering that the ROI on Progressive Web Apps is almost a guaranteed win, and your users will enjoy the experience and love your brand even more for it.
While Progressive Web Apps are an amazing step forward in the mobile web, it should be noted they are mostly suitable for websites that fit the “web app mould”. A suitably designed e-commerce site could work well, as could a game, a competition, a news site etc, but for something like a simple brochure website adding progressive capabilities will probably be overkill and possibly problematic. A simple brochure website will be unlikely to need background sync, native notifications and offline capabilities. There is also the little matter of Apple. A few of the really cool features of Progressive Web Apps like prompting to install to home screen are Android only for now. This is just the start of a new standard however, so platforms like iOS are likely to incorporate Progressive Web Apps (or similar) once they become more common place.
Thankfully we are not calling this brave new world of Progressive Web Apps “Web 3.0”, however it is a seismic shift in the way websites will be planned, developed, designed and executed. Do you have any thoughts about Progressive Web Apps or have you built one and want to share your experience? Hit me up on Twitter @da_n or @mycleveragency.
 Analysis of 2015 earnings
 While a few native-like features have been available for mobile websites (like the now deprecated AppCache) these technologies have so far been a pain point to develop and maintain, so didn’t really see much use in the real world.