How Progressive Web Apps are Changing the Mobile Web Experience
My mom was complaining about how her phone is cluttered with all kinds of apps she doesn’t use or know what they are. So my eight-year-old son popped over to help out (free screen time!). Faster than I could have, he had moved the unwanted apps into a “junk heap” folder on the phone.
He doesn’t have a phone, but he’s played with them enough to intuitively figure out how to work with apps. The mobile web doesn’t have that same intuitive feel – you can’t drag a website around, for example. Although this is starting to change with Progressive Web Apps (PWAs).
PWAs are an initiative to bring a set of app-like features to the mobile web – including the app icons. Sites upgraded with PWA features will be able to give their mobile web users a better mobile experience. At the same time, a brand may be able to avoid the expense of building, maintaining, and distributing a native app because of its mobile website’s app-like features.
It’s often noted that mobile users spend the majority of their time in apps (86% according to comScore), but they still make the majority of their purchases on the mobile web (66%). Additionally, while time in apps is large, the top 1,000 websites see more unique visitors than the top 1,000 apps (comScore). These numbers point to the mobile web as being more important than a branded app for a majority of brands.
The full set of features that PWAs provide is extensive and currently evolving, as is browser adoption. Some of the most important features include:
An app-style icon on home screen to keep brands top of mind for the most loyal customers.
An app-style full-screen window to help keep users engaged and less distracted.
Partial offline website capabilities so users in the mountains can see more than a “no connection” message.
A significant potential to improve loading speed (and thus lower bounce rates and lift conversion rates).
Push notifications to alert users of sales or send them updates (it’s also possible to do a bit of tracking with these to ensure you aren’t being too annoying).
A direct tie into user’s Apple Pay or Android Pay to potentially eliminate the need for the billing screen and the tedium of typing in credit card information.
Of course, there are considerations to if and when a brand should dive into PWAs. Some of the main limitations include:
The development sizing for PWAs is significant. While it can be rolled out in phases, it takes upfront work if a brand isn’t already built with single-page app design, HTTPs-only security, and responsive design.
Safari is not fully supporting PWAs yet. Globally, Safari is 18% of all mobile web traffic (Statcounter), but for many US brands, it’s actually the majority of mobile sales. Apple may be resistant to supporting PWAs because of the revenue they gain from the app store, primarily from gaming apps, but there are signs they are moving toward support. As more sites build PWAs, a likely outcome is that Apple eventually supports them. Additionally, some case studies report Safari engagement rates improved due to perceived loading speed increases despite the lack of PWA support.
Native apps still have some features that web apps do not, like access to a user’s camera or GPS capabilities. Native apps may continue to have this edge for some time, though an upcoming version of Safari is already working on these specific features.
Organic search from a PWA could be a net positive, but there are important technical functions that would need to be worked around. Without talking to an SEO team first, suddenly moving forward with PWA features could result in significant traffic and revenue losses.
Several large sites are live PWAs today. A few of the brands include:
The Washington Post
Additionally, several case study results were announced by other brands at the Google I/O conference. From our own research, we reviewed the data from a site which launched as a PWA against a competitor site. Using a 3rd party tool, we found that time on site grew 65% after launch while the competitor’s site did not see the same lift.
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In many ways, the move to PWAs seems like the move to HTML5 from several years ago. While browsers are rolling out their support over time, sites can also build out features in phases, and it doesn’t necessarily require ditching the old mobile web site (unlike the move to responsive design). Ultimately, moving forward with a PWA upgrade seems to be a step that brands will have to take eventually in order to stay competitive because of the great improvements to the mobile web experience.