Progressive Web App was hailed as the next big thing a few years ago. And yet—as is often the case with “revolutions” in the tech world—it hasn’t gained the traction predicted by those initial noisy headlines. Suggesting that PWA has somehow failed is, however, way wide of the mark; in fact, companies like Google and Microsoft are in and there is no sign that they will be giving up on PWA any time soon.

On the contrary, it looks like these two behemoths are joining forces to ease the usage of the Progressive Web Apps. As Judah Gabriel Himango from Microsoft recently wrote about it on Medium, the companies have a taken significant step towards making PWAs even stronger:

“Microsoft’s PWABuilder and Google’s Bubblewrap are now working together to help developers publish PWAs in the Google Play Store [...] When we rolled out our initial collaborative work with Google’s Bubblewrap this spring, PWABuilder didn’t have a way to customize the Android package it generated. While this was fine for some basic scenarios, like publishing to the Google Play Store for the first time, it fell short in other ways. To address this, we’ve updated PWABuilder to allow for full customization of your Android app package”

Judah Gabriel Himango

So… What exactly is the technology that pushed these two traditional enemies to form an alliance? 

The characteristics of PWA

The term PWA is not easy to explain, all the more so because PWA is not even technology per se, it’s rather a specific approach to web development. Using standard web languages, PWA is aimed at delivering native-like user experience. PWAs are written in JavaScript, CSS, and HTML, and look and behave just like regular web pages (which means searchable in internet browsers). However, they also deliver functionalities identical to those provided by mobile apps: they are fast, can work offline, send push notifications, and use the features of users’ devices. 

Despite the fact that, from a developers’ point of view, they are pretty basic websites enriched with some extras, Progressive Web Apps are able to blend the mobile- and web-like UX. They can be perceived as a fusion or a missing element that connects the web and mobile worlds which were clearly decoupled and closed in the walled garden of Google and Apple's ecosystems until recently.

Yet, since they do not imply any particular implementation, it is not easy to coin a proper, dictionary definition of PWAs. Google, the company that came up with them, doesn't offer much help, as its official introduction remains pretty vague. 

It says that PWA is:

Origin of PWA

Google is the godfather of PWA, which should come as no surprise. As we said above, PWA, by blending the web- and mobile-like UX, has a chance to break down the wall in Google and Apple’s garden of data. While Google can afford that (as its data storage also contains pretty much all of the world wide web), Apple is not in such a comfortable position here.

However, the idea of putting mobile user experiences in the center of interest was actually brought by Steve Jobs over a decade ago. Apple’s CEO presented the concept during the iPhone introduction in 2007 because, at the beginning of the mobile revolution, it seemed obvious that external apps would be a leverage for the popularity of the nascent Apple device. Jobs wanted to encourage developers to build them.

That was, however, a short-lived idea. In July 2008, Apple placed the concept of "universal apps" on ice. The company presented the App Store instead and mobile apps started to dominate the internet. The PWA-specific approach had to wait for its moment, which came a decade later. In 2015, Frances Berriman and Alex Russell, the authors of term PWA, wrote in the foreword of “Progressive Web Apps”, a book by Jason Grigsby:

"The idea of native apps always seemed like a regression. Walled gardens with terrible search, dubious security, and the endless tax of updates - it felt so 1990s." 

Berriman and Russell noticed a new type of website delivering a way better user experience than traditional web apps. They called them “Progressive Web Apps”. A year later, during the Google IO conference, Eric Bidelman, Senior Staff Developers Programs Engineer, introduced Progressive Web Apps as a new standard in web development. 

In early 2018, Apple shipped support for basic features of PWA but still imposed certain limitations regarding cache capacity or native push notifications. PWAs based on iOS even now lag in certain ways. 

One of Vue Storefront Core Partner, Aureate Labs, listed them in its YourStory Blog

Limitations of PWA in iOS: 

  1. Web apps by iOS can't access the native components of phones like ARkit, Face ID, or Bluetooth. It limits the apps from being dynamic. 

  2. Generally, PWA beacons are proven strategies for maximizing the results of mobile marketing. However, iOS PWAs are not allowed to read from Beacons, altimeters, or the phone battery. BLE Beacons are used to notify people of PWAs when they stand close to the Beacon marketing device. 

  3. iOS backed PWAs fail to present homogenous and consistent behavior across multiple platforms. For each platform, PWA may have a different vocabulary, presentation, and —most importantly—icon. 

  4. PWA has a tough time syncing in the background. As native apps sync in the background and give users the seamless experience, an iOS PWA can't be enough of a native app until it allows easy syncing. 

  5. iOS PWAs have a particular problem in accessing phone data. Whether it's your contact book or the current location—or any sensitive data that native apps can access—is a real pain in the neck in web apps on Safari.

  6. No matter how much Apple insists you shift to PWA rather than having an app for your business when it comes to allocating phone storage to it, iOS sucks big time. PWAs are not entitled to store as much data as they want on the phone. 50 MB is what they have allotted for PWAs. That's the reason why developers are asked to make supercompact PWA stores.

  7. If iOS PWA has a most noticeable shortcoming, it has to be web push notification. We can't imagine a native app without push notifications. That's the same case for PWA if we are striving to make them the "next big thing" in the industry. As iOS PWA doesn't support web push notifications and user installation banners, it will be difficult for your business to make personalized and timely targeting. 

  8. PWAs that allow access to native social apps are desirable web apps. Unfortunately, so far, iOS PWAs don't let users access native social apps and establish interaction with them. For example, you want to access FaceTime or messages through PWA, we wish you luck trying. 
  9. In the mobile world when search technology is getting smarter and easier with the likes of voice searches, PWA in iOS pulls you back to the "old technical civilization" where you can only input strings by typing them out. As PWAs don't support speech recognition, input searches will become manual and prone to more errors. 

  10. Last but not least, the web app experience on iOS Safari is quite different from the experience in Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge. For general websites, the web experience is consistent irrespective of the web browser. However, having PWA itself means that you are letting the creative differences manifest themselves and that's visible on all the web-platforms. You may call it inconsistent UIs across different browsers, but it isn't necessarily a bad thing if the designed PWA is user-friendly.

The current state of Progressive Web App

Native apps have reigned for a decade but we are finally moving on to a unified experience on every platform and device. It is, however, a long ride, and the current state of PWA is still quite far from proving the point that, in the omnichannel era, it is the best possible approach for the web.

Although the leading players on the online landscape, such as Alibaba, Pinterest, and Twitter already embrace them and have implemented PWA on their sites, the term Progressive Web App is still quite vague for minor players. Many of them, realizing that the mobile-first approach is a must these days, are convinced that there is no alternative for Responsive Web Design or native apps.

However, awareness of the advantages of PWAs is constantly growing, which is proved by Google’s statistics and the growing number of Vue Storefront live projects. 

See, all the stores that implemented PWA with Vue Storefront

SEO advantages and page experience

The main benefit of PWAs is the fact that they speed up the process of the application being indexed. Search engines like smooth, fast apps with limited retention, and promote them with a higher ranking in search results. And, as we all know, the higher the position, the greater the chance of grabbing the user's attention. Not to mention that website performance decreases the bounce rate—a metric that also impacts how Google evaluates a site and determines its position in SERP (Search Engine Results Page). 

UX, in general, influences SERPs more and more. Recently, page experience metrics were incorporated into the official ranking criteria. 

“Today, we’re building on this work and providing an early look at an upcoming search ranking change that incorporates these page experience metrics. We will introduce a new signal that combines Core Web Vitals with our existing signals for page experience to provide a holistic picture of the quality of a user’s experience on a web page.”

Google Blog, May 2020

We should also not over overlook the importance of business results. User engagement leads to higher conversion rates, retention, and loyalty, which is the foundation of stable growth in any eCommerce business. 

Crucial advantages of PWA

PWA may not meet the overhyped expectations yet, but that doesn’t change the fact that the shift towards better UX has already begun, and PWAs have a huge chance to play a crucial role in it. It seems inevitable since the PWA’s pros are not limited to technological advantages, but favors the business need as well. 

We’ve mentioned its role in boosting the user experience, which is the first base for driving revenues, but it still not all that needs to be said! Progressive Web Apps are simply the cheapest and simplest way to make the trail to the mobile world. That’s the fact. They are built with the most standard web technologies, can be set in within a few months, don’t require presence in app stores, which means no fees... To put it straight, instead of developing three entities - app for iOS, Android, and website - you can build just one that works well on any possible device. 

Engage your users with PWA

Progressive Web Apps, as we said at the beginning, are all about user experience, aimed at increasing user engagement and all the benefits that come with it. We can, however, choose the way we use the advantages of PWAs. Improving page speed is, of course, a no-brainer, but there are a lot more.

PWAs, as they are discoverable in the internet browsers, can also take advantage of the popularity of voice search, which seemingly is the next step of making digital interaction more human-like and the whole UX more consistent. In the omnichannel era, user experience should be seen in a big picture, including every single touchpoint, both offline and online. If the customer journey is not managed, users may feel dazed and confused... which is not the best foundation of shopping experience. PWA takes advantage of the habits that users already gain using native apps, enabling developers to use the features of mobile phones to enrich the UX. The camera, microphone, geolocalization, and even device vibration are at their disposal. The possibilities of PWA are shaped by the business requirements. 

Interested in a custom PWA implementation for your eCommerce or want to learn more about cooperation with partners?

Contact us, we will answer to your questions within 24 hours.

Patrick Friday, CEO of Vue Storefront