Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) have been touted as the “app-killer,” giving users a native app-like experience but delivered through cutting edge web-based technologies. As Product Owners of branded digital products we need to cut through the technical hype and try to understand what application new technologies will have in the real world.

So, after five years of PWAs – where are we?

What's the issue with PWAs?

First, a primer. Digital products are generally delivered to mobile phones in one of two ways. Either the user goes to a website on their phone and accesses the product there or they go to App/Play store and download the app as a “native” app. (There’s some nuance there, but for the purposes of this article when we say ‘native app’ we mean one compiled and downloaded from an app store.)

Historically web-based experiences have had some severe limitations compared with their native cousins. They have typically been delivered through the browser, required users to be “online,” been unable to access more advanced hardware features, and not had access to OS level services such as push notifications, Siri, and more. That, along with the slightly awkward installation experience, has limited their impact.

Over the last 5-10 years however the web experience has moved on. Advances in the technologies supporting these applications have started to allow more native-like features to be possible. PWAs can run with no internet connection, they can store data locally, they can start accessing hardware features such as payment systems, accelerometer, speech recognition, bluetooth etc. The theory has been that, as these technologies mature, PWAs ought to be able to offer users experiences and features equal to or better than a native application at a lower cost of development whilst allowing brands, and users, to avoid the App/Play Store’s draconian regulations (not to mention the 20-30% cut of revenue).

And therein lies the problem. The utopian vision of online and open applications distributed outside of the vendor’s walled gardens is a positive one but it does not align with the commercial objectives and imperatives expected at Mountain View or, especially, Cupertino. Of course Google and Apple talk a good game about embracing open source standards and encouraging web based development. The higher fidelity these experiences, the more likely users are to use them and the less ability the vendors have to control the channel (and the money flowing) between their users and third parties — e.g. your brand.

There is a reason why, five years after the term PWA was coined, we are still awaiting their big “take over.” There’s a wonderful article by Maximiliano Firtman written at the start of 2020 which captures the specifics but the summary is: implementation of features is slow and the Safari (that is iOS) implementation lags behind Android by some margin.

The truth is, PWA is never going to replace the downloadable, native app on the current iOS and Android platforms.

Should we avoid using PWAs?

So should we disregard PWAs as another techno-utopian fantasy that won’t be able to stand up in the real world?

No. Actually, we’re pretty excited about the potential for PWAs to help support and augment great native experiences because they have one huge advantage we’ve not touched on, which is that they are incredibly quick to load and onboard a user.

One of the largest hurdles in scaling app adoption is the barrier of getting a user “onboarded.” To summarise, imagine an application that represents a loyalty card program. A user might sign up online then be sent an email to download the app to access their digital loyalty card. From there they have to:

  1. Click the link to go to the App Store Page
  2. Download the app
  3. Remember (hopefully) their credentials to start the download
  4. Wait for it to download
  5. Locate the app icon and open it
  6. Register/authenticate with the app by :
    • Creating an account; or
    • Going back to an email, re-clicking the link, and being passed across to the app authenticated.

That’s a tall order; especially for non tech-savvy users.

On the flip side, the journey with a PWA would look like this:

  1. Click the link and be presented with their loyalty card.

From there they could save the PWA to their homescreen and have it be available offline, perhaps even be prompted to open it when they enter the physical store (using geolocation or bluetooth). The customer can then be presented with the option to download and engage with the native application, if the value-exchange makes sense. The brand has successfully onboarded the customer with a minimum of fuss, which massively enhances the likely adoption rate and wider success of the digital loyalty card program.

So what's the takeaway?

The process of onboarding a customer into a native application is a challenging one. PWAs, along with the recently announced App Clips with iOS and Android “Instant Apps” (more on those coming soon) offers an easily accessible “first step” to encouraging adoption of your brand’s application and a platform from which to encourage transition into the native app.

It’s another example of the app eco-system maturing by providing another tool when designing digital products. It’s not going to work in every product — but for the right ones, we believe PWAs provide a great “App-Lite” experience.