While the name gives little away, a progressive web app (PWA for short) is a highly versatile and intelligent piece of software that is built to run on a range of modern devices from mobile phones to computers, and even large touchscreens and tablets. It can be installed onto the device itself like a standard app or viewed using a web browser such as Chrome or Safari – making it very similar to a website and allowing businesses to benefit from the digital marketing opportunities that come with a website presence.
Due to their flexibility, PWAs have silently transformed the development world over the last few years and seamlessly adapted the mobile app experience beyond the confines of mobile app stores, while providing the same intuitive and user-centred design we’re familiar with – making it easier for a wider demographic of users to enjoy the latest technologies.
A Brief History
Although progressive web apps were only given their official name in 2015, the concept has been around since the launch of the first generation of the iPhone in 2007. During a keynote speech announcing the latest Apple products and features, Steve Jobs (then Chairman & CEO of Apple), unveiled an “innovative new way to create applications for a mobile device,” and went on to discuss how the iPhone would make it easier for developers to “expand the capabilities of iPhone by writing great apps for it and yet keep the iPhone reliable and secure” using the AJAX framework. Remember, this was before the Apple App Store, so iPhone apps were built exclusively by Apple.
His vision was for apps to be created for the Safari web browser and allow developers to take advantage of the iPhone’s features such as making calls or using Google Maps without the need to install an app onto the phone (remember also that phone internal storage capacity was not what it is today!).
These Safari apps would “look exactly and behave exactly like apps,” offering instant distribution once the code is ready. “And they’re really easy to update – just change the code on your server”.
While Apple ultimately decided to focus on launching the App Store, the launch of HTML5 in 2008 made PWAs more feasible and secure, and by 2015 research increasingly showed that people wanted the same familiar functionality they enjoy on mobile to be available on the web. Alex Russell (who worked for Google at the time and helped build the underlying framework for PWAs) and his wife, Frances Berriman (who is a product, design, and technology consultant) both helped coin the PWA name and contributed to the technology we now love and use without even giving it a second thought.
Differences: PWAs vs Native, Hybrid, and Cross-Platform Apps
Before we jump into the benefits, we need to outline exactly what a progressive web app is and how it differs from other familiar app types, such as native, cross-platform, or even hybrid apps – especially as some types are not typically referred to by their technical names!
A native app is a piece of software built for a specific platform, operating system, or even device – it’s created to take advantage of all capabilities of that system and needs to be installed on the device to enable a user to interact with the app. An example of this would be iOS-only apps such as the first version of the popular social media app, Clubhouse, which was originally only available for iPhone users and not available for Android until a native Android app was released in May 2021. Native apps also allow creators to make operating-system-specific design changes to meet the expectations of users, so different versions of the same app, e.g. Facebook, may look slightly different to accommodate for screen resolution, size, and more. Native apps tend to be built using frameworks such as Java / Kotlin (Android) and Swift / Objective-C (iOS).
Cross-platform apps are developed to be compatible on multiple specific platforms, e.g. iOS and Android, without the need to build exclusive apps for each operating system, thus saving time and money. Similarly to native apps, cross-platform apps also need to be installed on the device to operate, but as they reuse code, they will look and function exactly the same way on all compatible systems (and will commonly be built using React Native and Flutter). Instagram is a great example of a cross-platform app that looks and functions the same way for all users.
Progressive web apps (PWAs) can be downloaded and installed onto a user’s device but are equally capable of running in a web browser without installation. As PWAs look like a website from a user’s perspective, many users may not realise they are using a progressive web app (though may notice the download icon in the address bar of supported browsers or the pop-up that appears on mobile!). As creator Alex Russell is quoted saying: “they’re just websites that took all the right vitamins”!
PWAs are designed to be compatible with any device regardless of its operating system and can be installed through a web browser as long as the device has a stable internet connection. Once downloaded, the app will be accompanied by a shortcut icon that opens the web app which perfectly mimics the experience of using a traditional mobile or desktop app. To delete the PWA, simply uninstall it from your browser settings menu or the app settings panel on desktop devices – PWAs are generally not available on the app stores (but more of that next!). Popular PWAs include Google Maps, Pinterest, Twitter, and even some streaming sites such as Spotify and brand websites such as BMW.
In comparison, hybrid apps can be built by adapting PWA code to create a native or cross-platform app that can be published on the app store(s). This is an increasingly popular choice for companies as it requires less maintenance but comes with the benefits of having an app store presence. Fantastic examples of hybrid apps include Gmail and Evernote.
Bonus: a standard web app is designed to run exclusively in a web browser and cannot be downloaded onto the user’s device. Standard web apps provide more interaction than a website but less than an app as they are not able to take full advantage of system settings beyond basic functionality without third-party integrations. Examples include Slack and Netflix.
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