Introduction to Progressive Web Apps (PWAs)

Progressive Web Apps Cut Out the App Store Middleman

PWA stands for “Progressive Web Apps.” What these are, essentially, are applications that live on a user’s browser, rather than on their device. This functionality cuts out a lot of the pain points and barriers to adoption associated with traditional apps. When properly implemented, a PWA is a smoother, more intuitive user experience with a potentially much wider reach than traditional apps. 

How PWAs Work

Essentially, they simulate an application via a website. The key differentiator of a PWA is that it’s only a single page-load; once you’ve accessed one, you navigate around within it without necessitating opening new page loads. You’ve probably used dozens of them without even realizing it; Trivago, Pinterest, and Tinder are three notable examples. This one-page functionality leads to much faster page loads on subsequent visits, although that’s far from the only upside.

PWAs accomplish this efficiency by utilizing a technology known as “Service Workers.” Service Workers function by caching content on first load, so it’s ready when they need it. This also enables offline functionality, though obviously content added to the PWA since the user’s last connection won’t be accessible until the user is online. 

What They're Capable Of

PWAs can do virtually everything a native application can do. PWAs can send push notifications, interface with a user’s camera or microphone, even function offline. The distinction is that they can do all these things without necessitating a visit to the app store or a significant amount of device storage. Users can access them by simply visiting the website in question. PWAs can also be added to a home screen just like any other app, generally with just a click or two from the source website. 

Upsides and Downsides 

The primary upsides are speed, ease of adoption on the user side, and the removal of deployment barriers. Users get a better experience, and have to jump through fewer hoops to get there.

Companies get a more engaging product, and more agility with regards to updating, deploying or changing it. This allows companies to not only simplify the workstream, but to save significant costs as they no longer need to design and maintain a separate website as well as native applications for both iOs and Google.

One of the best ways to maintain your website’s peak performance is to continuously update it, and it’s considerably easier and cheaper to do so with a single, unified instance instead of multiple independent satellite versions. 

On the down side, PWAs by their nature don’t have a chance to rank in the various app stores, so if that’s something a company is targeting, they’re likely better off with a traditional app. This also means a PWA won’t generate reviews (at least, not in the app store; positive word of mouth remains the best review of all and is still very much in play), and would miss out on app-store dependent opportunities for promotion. So long as those factors aren’t priorities, PWAs are the superior solution.  

Remove Barriers to Entry

One of the biggest benefits of a PWA is that it removes an access barrier between you and your audience. We’ve mentioned before that every single customer, prospect, vendor, and employee uses your website. By using a PWA, you ensure they’re also using your app. You cut out the necessity clicking through the app store or waiting for something to download; they’re engaging with your app from go. 

Additionally, PWAs remove the necessity for manual updates; any time users connect to your site, they’re getting the most up-to-date version of your content, and they don’t have to do any extra legwork to get it. 

Offline Access

Thanks to Service Workers, your users can use your app even when they’re offline; the most up-to-date version is automatically cached whenever they visit. There are some limitations—users can’t make a purchase, for instance, if they aren’t connected—but it’s still a massive win for you and your users.

Starbucks’ PWA, for example, allows their clients to create custom orders in advance. They, and many other e-commerce PWAs, allow for offline cart management as well. Another success story is Magento, an early adopter and now industry authority on the subject.

Broader Reach

Another major advantage for PWAs over native applications is reach. As technically a website, they benefit from SEO and organic web traffic in a way downloadable apps can’t really compete with. Everything you’re already doing to increase traffic to your website still work, and once a user finds you, they’re already using your app. Good luck reaching a 100% adoption rate any by any other method. 

Streamlined Design and Deployment

PWAs effectively serve as your desktop website, your mobile website, and your app; that means only one set of design assets are needed, instead of three. We’ve talked before about the importance of combining content and commerce. A company leveraging a PWA has one single, unified source of truth for both, and a single unified experience. It’s more intuitive for users and a lower production lift for companies. The final product is a more agile and stress-free experience for both.

PWAs Are Here to Stay

PWAs will likely never entirely replace native applications or old-school websites, but they’re absolutely the wave of the future, and savvy early adopters will have a leg up on the competition. A product that is easier to design, deploy, and update which provides a more unified user experience while simultaneously increasing adoption rates is an absolute no-brainer, and it’s no surprise that industry leaders like Starbucks and Tinder are already ahead of the curve. 

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