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Progressive web apps drive mobile development of the future

Progressive web apps offer many benefits, leading organizations to take advantage of this trend in mobile app dev. A lack of Apple support stands in the way for some, however.

As performance and user experience become more essential to the success of an enterprise mobile app, progressive web apps gain interest -- and may eventually become the future standard for mobile development.

Progressive web apps (PWAs) blend the functionalities of traditional web apps with native apps while providing increased speed and performance. Several aspects of the mobile app development landscape today make it primed for this trend to take hold.

"If you're building a web app today, it should be a PWA," said Michael Facemire, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "There's really no reason not to."

Benefits of PWAs

PWAs run on the web but can take advantage of native mobile device features, such as appearing on the home screen and sending push notifications. Google supports PWAs for use on Android device browsers, but Apple does not yet support them for its proprietary browser, Safari, on iPhones or iPads. PWAs differ from hybrid web apps in that they are typically not available for download through native app stores and are built using only web technologies.

For PWAs on Android, a service worker API caches data as the user browses to enable offline support. Most PWAs also include an application shell architecture that allows for fast loading times, transport layer security, and a web app manifest file that allows the app to be installed on the home screen, according to Google's checklist of features.

We get to deliver to users wherever they want us to be, as opposed to being limited to the app store.
David Frahmdirector of growth, Nexercise

There may be no difference between a PWA and a native app from the end user's perspective. That's beneficial for IT departments that already have an app interface their users or customers are comfortable with.

That was a big benefit for Nexercise, a health and wellness platform that is currently building a PWA for Sworkit, a fitness application. The Sworkit app was first developed for Apple iOS and Android, then the web and Apple TV. Since its web and native apps already shared some JavaScript code, it made sense to develop a PWA, said David Frahm, director of growth at Nexercise in Silver Spring, Md., who oversaw Sworkit's development.

"Visually, [our PWA] might look pretty much the same [as our web app]," Frahm said. "That would be great, because we have a great app, and we don't want to change all of that. We get to deliver to users wherever they want us to be, as opposed to being limited to the app store."

PWAs are popular as B2C apps, but organizations develop them for internal employees as well.

Flex, a manufacturing and supply chain services provider based in Singapore, is building progressive web apps that trigger push notifications as employees enter a specific location, said Myckel Haghnazari, director of cloud strategy and execution. The notifications provide information such as the customers and volume of orders an employee will handle in that location. The offline capabilities of PWAs are also important for facilities management employees that often work in dead zones, Haghnazari said.

PWA technologies

A progressing trend

Distinct drawbacks have accompanied both web and native app development approaches. Traditional web apps see reduced adoption because users can't find them in an app store, and native apps often require separate code for each OS. Even for PWAs, Google has shown no signs yet that it will add them to the Play Store.

PWAs are gaining popularity because they are relatively simple to develop. Small organizations such as Sworkit look to progressive web apps to lower load time and increase reliability -- without hiring a specialized staff.

"It's a whole lot more likely that [a development shop] has web skills than native app development skills on both Android and iOS," Facemire said. "[Developing PWAs] tends to be an efficiency play as opposed to a lack of resource play."

Plus, the maturation of app development technologies has begun to spur the success of PWAs. Previously, Frahm's team relied on an assortment of complicated web tools to build traditional web apps, he said. Now, development tools from companies such as Ionic and Mobify are lightweight and can be used with less high-end web skills and tooling.

The evolution of browsers has also made progressive web apps more viable. Google Chrome, Opera, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Samsung Internet web browsers either support or plan to support service workers, the technology that provides offline support for PWAs. PWAs work so well on many of the supported Android browsers that Sworkit might not even need a native Android app, Frahm said.

"We're finding that browsers are so much more capable that we require a lot less from the tool side," said Frahm, whose team uses Ionic's development framework. "Our PWA might be good enough to do everything that we need it to do, everything that our customers expect of us and then some, without requiring [an Android native app]."

The new standard

Organizations can expect progressive web apps to become the new normal for mobile app development, Facemire said.

"The term PWA may go away, but it's something we should be doing all the time anyway, simply because mobile devices are so pervasive in our society," he said.

One major hurdle remains: Apple's support of PWAs on Safari. Fortunately, the company has already showed signs that it's working on it.

"Once that happens, it will be much more real for a lot of people," Frahm said.

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