First, let's talk about what a PWA (progress web app) is before moving onto why your business should be concerned about it.  For a number of years now, the capabilities of the web browser, particularly on a smart device, have been converging with those of a native web app.  With the latest versions of javascript combined with new technologies such as React and VueJS, developers have been able to create rich 'app-like' experiences right in the browser.

The beauty of this is that companies can start to leverage the power of an app without having to support multiple different platforms by building apps natively on each.  Users simply go to the address of the web app in their browser and hey presto, they are straight into an app-like experience.  Great.

However, whilst there has been some covergence, there have been a few rather major stumbling blocks that have prevented web apps from truly overtaking their native rivals, namely:

  • Offline support
  • Notifications
  • Background updates
  • Access to native functionality such as the camera
  • Instant loading

Arise, modern browsers.  Whilst support is still in-coming, Google have stolen a march on their rivals with the combination of their Chrome browser and Android operating system.  On an Android device you can now have a PWA behave almost entirely like a native app; it can receive notifications, it can update seemlessly in the background, it supports offline working and it has full access to the phone's native elements such as the camera.  It can even be integrated into the app tray, just like a native app.

All of this means you can no longer just create an 'app-like' experience in the browser, but when coupled with a javascript framework such as React or VueJS, it means we can now create real, fully-fledged apps in the browser.

Now, before we speak about why this is important, it's only right to cover the caveats, the terms and conditions that inevitably apply.  At the moment, this will not work in all browsers on all platforms.  Android is the most used mobile operating system in the world and in its latest versions it contains full support.  Firefox has just added some important features to its mobile browser to support some PWA functionality.  However, iOS is languishing behind somewhat with both its operating system and native Safari browser.

On the face of it - the problem sounds like one of technology - maybe they just haven't caught up yet, or perhaps they don't know how to provide this support like the guys at Google do.  Sadly, neither of these are true, they know exactly how to do all of this, however they have taken, what seems in this writer's, perhaps cynical view, a concious decision not to include these features at the moment.

The reason is fairly clear, whilst Google have never particulary pushed or relied upon their app store for revenue, Apple has an extremely healthy app store income and if they were to fully unleash the power of the PWA on their platform then its likely that not all, but a significant amount, of their app store real estate would shift to the browser (and therefore out of their control and montesation).

That's not to say that they don't give some support to PWAs.  They allow access to native functions such as the camera and they also support instant/cached loading through the standard manifest files.  It is clear that the direction of the web is wedded to PWA support and in time Apple will have to follow suit, indeed there are strong rumours that their next major release of iOS wll contain the latest WebKit features that include the support for service workers, the brain behind Notifications and Offline support.

It's an important point to make, as well, that the reason PWAs contain that work 'Progressive' is because PWAs are designed to follow the principals of progressive enhancement.  This means that an app will be built to support the most basic and underpowered browsers but will introduce more features such as offline support, notifications etc as the browser it is running in allows.  This means that a fully fledged PWA that runs every aspect in a Chrome browser will still work perfectly well in Safari on iOS but as soon as Apple hand out all the sweets, your app is ready to consume them.

So, we now understand what a PWA is, but why should your business care?  Putting to one side, for a minute that a PWA gives you the power of a native app with the reach of the web and allows you access to features like notifications, the main focus here is speed.  When ranking search results, Google now hoists faster websites nearer to the top than slower ones.

It believes that developers should be encouraged to make their websites and apps fast because users are impatient, they only wait mere seconds before giving up.  Google truly signalled their intent with the introduction of AMP (accelerated mobile pages).  This is proprietary technology it created that allows organisations to write web pages in a specific syntax that Google understands.  Google then 'pre-caches' the page resulting in an extremely fast response time for the user.  Websites that leverage this technology now, generally, receieve a higher ranking than an otherwise equal rival.

The natural extension of this, and Google have put a stake in the ground with their near perfect PWA support, is that those websites with PWA features will start to outrank those without.  The reason is clear, its a continued focus on speed - forgetting all the other features of a PWA, instant loading is probably the biggest benefit, and this feature is available now on pretty much any device including iOS.

Those ahead of the curve will benefit as soon as Google update their search algorithms to recognise websites with PWA support, so the sooner your organisation leverages these new features, the more robust and prepared they will be for the changes to come.