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What is a PWA? Why are they important?

How apps are made traditionally

The idea of a PWA (Progressive Web App) isn’t something new, however this acronym wasn’t really used until recently. Back when smartphones were emerging, as were app stores. Each platform has its own app store with apps that are tailored to work with the platform. Apps are built upon whatever language the platform adheres to, and this allows for smooth operation and intergration with the hardware the platform is presented on. For example an android app is built upon Java, and with the correct API’s given by the Android developers, the app developer can tap into things like the camera, fingerprint sensor, GPU, accelerometer etc. This is perfectly fine and is a proven method for years. The same is experienced for Apple’s Mac OS, iOS and Windows, each with their own app store and languages. This is really where the problem lies though. Since most big developers want their apps accessible to all major platforms, but each platform needs its own app built from scratch. This can be time consuming, spreading development hours across multiple platforms.

What is one thing that each platform has in common?

Each platform does have one common denominator. A browser. In Google’s case, Chrome. Its cross platform, conforms to modern standards in coding, such as HTML5. The same can be said for most modern browsers such as Firefox and most recently Edge, since its now available on Android, although yet to come to iOS.

So how does that help? Well web apps were a focus point by Google when Chrome OS began to take off. Google and many others in the industry realized that apps could, to an extent, be created using HTML and javascript. They would give an almost app like experience without the need to a bulky app to be downloaded onto the device, and rather be accessed through the web browser. Google setup the Web App Store, with the intention of creating a cross platform app store that worked well with Chrome. It didn’t take off though, as not enough backing from big players left the store rather stale. This was mainly due to the limitations HTML5 still had. Developers struggled to tap into hardware API. and the experience was limiting to the user. “Proper” apps were still winning with consumers.

So whats changed now?

Well progress in HTML5 and various other web languages have come on quite a bit. Chrome in particular is making a push to support these features, including USB and GPU support. Google has also developed a dev tool in Chrome allowing developers to test and alter their web apps to pass as a PWA. This variation of web app allows a user to add the web app to a platform, not only acting as a shortcut to the web app but being listed as an app and acting like one too. A PWA opens fullscreen and the developer can alter the apps colour scheme behaviour, splash screen and screen orientation etc. They feel a lot more native and can even be used offline.

How will this change things?

A single app that can be used on any platform, is a powerful thing, as long as the user isn’t sacrificing functionality. A universal experience for all users, new features push out automatically without the need for app updates. A developers dream. However depending on what you want the app to do, you may still be limited. It could also turn the concept of an app store on its head. Apple’s profits are centered around two things, their hardware and app sales. Having control over the apps and taking a share of the profit is in Apples best interest, but if more and more users start using PWA’s then this could change. This might be another reason Google is keen. The search giant makes a lot more money through adverts than it does in app revenue, so if it can get people on to web apps and take them away from Apple’s app store then it’s win win. It’s also potentially good news for other platforms who haven’t been graced with such a successful app store as Apple or Google, I’m looking at you Microsoft. As well as the likes of Ubuntu or other Linux flavours. It wasn’t so long ago that Ubuntu had a smartphone that pretty much relied on the idea of web apps. Sadly it was too ahead of the game and wasn’t realized.

How do I find them?

There are a few PWA app stores/lists out there. PWA.rocks is one of the more popular. Here are a few apps to get you started:

Currency Converter

Web Flap

Flipboard

Mobile.Twitter

Instagram.com

Easiest way to do it, open these links on your phone with Chrome. Open the menu bar and choose “Add to Homescreen”. Accept, then you will find it as an app in both your Homescreen and app drawer. Believe it or not but this website is a PWA, just for you to try out. Go ahead and add us to your Homescreen.

Try it on other browsers and platforms too, see how they behave.

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