WTF are Progressive Web Apps?

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

Google is telling publishers they can get all the benefits of the mobile web with all the functionality of mobile apps with a product called Progressive Web Apps. This relatively new standard for building mobile websites was highlighted at the Google I/O developer conference this week, where The Washington Post showed off a new mobile web-app hybrid site.

Many brands and publishers are wondering what a PWA is and why they should care about them. Here’s a primer:

What is a PWA?
It stands for Progressive Web App, and it lets developers build a mobile website that can perform super-fast and behave just like an app. “They are a better way to enable a website to work more like a native installed app,” said Aaron Gustafson, who works on web standards at Microsoft. For instance, The Washington Post’s PWA has swipe-right technology built into it. Users can also copy the site’s homepage to their homescreen and open it like an app. So, it lets people interact with it like an app without the hassle of downloading it.

washington post pwa full

Why is it called a Progressive Web App?
This type of site can load on a number of browsers and devices, regardless of screen size and other specs. “The reason it’s called ‘progressive’ is because the experience gets progressively better depending on what technology is available in the device,” said David Merrell, senior mobile product manager at The Washington Post.

On less sophisticated devices, even old Blackberries, a PWA could serve a stripped-down web product and the functionality can become progressively more sophisticated as the devices allow. It’s universally recognized. Gustafson compared it to a curb cut that is built for wheelchair access but accommodates bikes, skates, skateboards and shopping carts. This means that developers, publishers and brands can build these experiences and have them work across the board without as big an investment as native apps designed for every particular platform.

What other benefits are there?
The web apps are progressive in other ways. They learn more about the user, the more visits someone makes, even if they’re not logged in. So, if someone visits the same site a few times, it could prompt them to download the link for access from their homescreens. The PWA also could invite a reader to get notifications just like an app. It’s also dynamic and can update with new content on its own, and be accessed while offline.

In the future, PWAs will only become more sophisticated with more integration into the devices. For instance, they could tap into location setting to communicate over Bluetooth with beacons in the real world. A PWA could also work with a phone’s personal assistant like Siri, making it easier to control the content with voice commands.

Doesn’t Google already have Accelerated Mobile Pages?
Yes, and PWAs are an outgrowth of that project. Accelerated Mobile Pages are designed to load fast on mobile devices, and PWAs are just as fast but with more functionality. However, AMPs are actually indexed in Google search results, driving traffic to them, unlike PWAs, which right now require a direct URL or link. The Washington Post will test links to its PWA from AMPs, Merrell said. There are other downsides to PWAs, as well, including the fact there are no ads being served, but they are coming for publishers.

Why hasn’t this been more widely adopted?
Well, it’s still new, and publishers like The Post are just experimenting with it. Also, not all the technology has been fully adopted. For instance, software known as Service Worker, which helps with some of the more advanced features, like offline functionality, isn’t supported by Apple’s Safari browser.

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