Progressive Web Apps Leapfrog Older Mobile Development Approaches

mobile applicationsAs the proliferation and usage of mobile devices has overtaken those of desktops over the last few years, it has become increasingly important for businesses to provide superlative mobile customer experiences. Traditional development approaches, including Responsive Web Design (RWD) and Native Application Development, have their respective advantages and disadvantages. A third alternative, Progressive Web Apps (PWA) have become increasingly sophisticated over recent years to the point that they now provide a better experience for customers as well as improved profitability for our businesses. 

Before discussing the advantages of PWA, let’s review the advantages and disadvantages provided by the more traditional approaches to the development of mobile experiences.  

Responsive Web Design (RWD)

  • Does not produce a mobile application, per se–since it just resizes the content for mobile devices–and simply provides a “mobile web” experience
  • Design supports mobile screens (e.g., phones, tablets) of different sizes and supports multiple hardware platforms  (e.g., Apple vs. Google) and operating systems (iOS vs. Android) providers
  • Advantages include relatively low development costs, faster time-to-market and ease of updating with a single HTML5 code base
  • Disadvantages include a poor customer experience compared to other approaches:
    • When the web is accessed by mobile devices, it  provides slower performance and poorer reliability than true mobile applications
    • The inability of this approach to take advantage of the hardware and software features of mobile devices greatly diminishes the functionality availability to users and reduces engagement levels and associated conversion rates

Native Application Development

  • Takes advantage of unique hardware and software features provided by mobile device manufacturers, including:
    • Clocks, calendars, gyroscopes, GPS, and the biometrics needed for fingerprint and facial recognition
    • The powerful Central Processing Units (CPU) and Graphics Processing Units (GPU) of mobile devices can produce realistic, responsive and engaging Virtual Reality applications and, when used with the device’s camera, create powerful Augmented Reality applications. 
    • Seamless integration with other mobile apps on the device, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, and LinkedIn for cross-application login and authentication support
  • Other advantages of building applications with native toolkits include faster performance and improved reliability over the mobile web experience provided by RWD
  • The disadvantages of native application development stem from the time and difficulty of developing and maintaining separate code bases for each native environment supported, resulting in reduced time-to-market for initial applications and upgrades

Progressive Web Applications (#PWA)

Progressive Web Apps represent a relatively new generation of web applications that provide a bridge between the mobile web and mobile applications. They load just like regular websites but take advantage of features supported by modern browsers, including service workers and web application manifests. These provide the functionality to support work offline, provide push notifications, and many other features that only native applications have previously been able to provide.

PWA initially provides a mobile web experience, but show prompts for users to download a mobile application directly from the site (and appear instantly on their home screens), rather than having to find, download and install these apps from Google Play or the Apple Store. 

Advantages include:

  • Significantly more mobile app downloads.  It’s much easier for customers to visit websites on their mobile devices than it is to find, download and install mobile applications from Google Play and the Apple Store. According to Comscore, about half of America’s smart phone users download zero mobile applications per month. For each step in the process of downloading a mobile app, moreover, about 20% drop out of the process at each step.         
  • Most of the customer experience advantages that are found in natively developed applications–including faster, more reliable and highly engaging experiences–apply here as well, resulting in higher conversion rates and revenues over RWD
  • PWAs can be cached by the web browser and utilized offline. This is especially valuable for e-commerce sites because it enables customers to browse products when they aren’t even connected to the internet
  • Takes advantage of many of the unique hardware and software features provided by mobile device manufacturers and utilized by native applications  

Disadvantages include:

  • Limited iOS support.  Apple began supporting PWA when it released the iOS version 11.3 so earlier versions of the operating system provide no PWA support. Even with its latest release, iOS 12.2, Apple still doesn’t make many of it’s hardware and software features available to PWAs. This is consistent with Apple’s approach that attempts to control the entire user experience, from end-to-end.  While this can provide positive customer experiences, they frequently cripple applications that allow users to go around them and even ban applications from its App Store that compete with their own apps. 
  • Limited perceived legitimacy. Since these apps can theoretically be offered by any secure website that supports HTML 5, they sometimes lack the legitimacy of mobile apps provided in Google Play or Apple’s App Store. 
  • Lack of cross-application login support. Native apps (such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and LinkedIn) have the ability to communicate with one another and authenticate logins, while PWAs do not.

Conclusion

While Apple has yet to fully embrace Progressive Web Apps, there is enough momentum behind this technology, and government pressure for them to permit them.  This is especially true given the Supreme Court’s recent antitrust ruling regarding Apple’s control of the App Store. PWA has indeed leapfrogged RWD and native application development by providing superior experiences for customers and higher conversion rates for businesses.

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