If you already have a good grasp of PWAs, feel free to skip to the second part of the article.
What the heck is a PWA?
A progressive web app is basically a website that you can take with you offline. The way it works is you visit a website on your device, and the site announces that it is a special type of web page that you can download. Depending on your device and browser, you then click a button, and the web app is downloaded to your device’s home screen. This could be on your phone, tablet, or even a desktop. You will then have a little icon just like any other app, that will launch the web site without a web browser, and it works offline! Considering how powerful web apps have become, there is a huge amount that can be done with a PWA. They look like apps, can perform offline tasks, and then can synchronize with their home web-servers next time the device is online.
So first a little history
Even though they have been around since 2015, Apple really only started supporting the technology in mid-2018, and the iPhone still has a lot of sway in setting technology trends. The specification for PWAs contains a lot of interesting technologies and options. However, that standard has not been accepted or applied by all of the major browser and device manufacturers. This means that there are things you can have on an Android PWA that you can’t have on an iOS device. Like any new technology, this will likely coalesce as time goes on, and the full promise of PWAs will be available to developers and the rest of the connected world.
Where PWAs are strong
Basic web technology
One of the most appealing strengths of PWAs is that they mostly use standard web technologies. This means that you write them using the same tools and languages that web developers are familiar with. You don’t have to be an app developer to make them. A few simple tweaks to your existing web app, and you can turn it into a basic PWA. This can drastically increase the speed to market of an application because developers don’t have to worry about testing on multiple devices or need to understand the complexities of app development.
Write once, run anywhere
The other PWA superpower is that they are designed to be cross-platform from the get go. For most native technologies, you have to write two completely different apps with completely different programming languages to get just iOS and Android coverage. Theoretically, a PWA should run the same on an Android tablet and an iPhone Xs. There are a number of new app technologies that allow you to do something similar, but with nowhere near the simplicity of a PWA. This makes testing much easier, and iterating on designs and features a charm. You can now test your code in a web browser and never have to open the complicated native app development tools ever again!
No need to download an app
Because PWAs are downloaded and “installed” from a website, you don’t have to submit them to the app stores. Apple and Google have a bunch of rules and regulations, as well as tests to make sure your app qualifies to get into their stores. Apple especially can be tricky at times, with apps having to be reviewed by humans. I’ve seen apps fail these standards for the tiniest infraction. PWAs sidestep this process completely, meaning you can release updates to your PWA without having to submit anything to the stores. Turn around time goes from days to instantaneously.
Fallback to web page
Because PWAs run in the browser, if a users device doesn’t support PWAs, they can still use a lot of their functionality as a basic website. With an app, if your device doesn’t support it, or it’s out-of-date, it just won’t install. But there is always a fallback option with a PWA. It just means you probably can’t save your data without logging into some online system, but that’s a minor inconvenience compared to the power of having a failsafe.
Lots of potential
PWAs might not be mainstream right now, but they have a lot of potential. There is a growing interest from the developer community and from the business side to reduce the costs of developing and maintaining native applications. As more and more libraries and standards open up, PWAs are going to become more and more attractive. When we start seeing features like web versions of Apple’s AI kit or Bluetooth connectivity across browsers, PWA capabilities will come really close to those of native apps.
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