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Should enterprises start building progressive web apps?

Enrico Icardi Management, Development and Strategy for the web, welance.com
Businessman holding smartphone

In the past seven years, web and mobile development—even in the enterprise space—has been very tough to follow. As a product manager and full-stack developer, I can assure you that, yes, this is a great time to be working in the IT services industry, but unfortunately not the best time to adopt a technology stack that will last your company more than a couple of years. Knowing what's best for your firm, in terms of technologies to adopt, could easily become a full-time job.

If picking technologies for your organization to adopt is part of your job description, you should be aware of a major trend that's taken over the mobile web development conversation over the past year: progressive web apps, or PWAs.

PWAs are an emerging mobile web application pattern that is adoptable right now. They may also be your next opportunity to save money without compromising the quality of your service and help your organization deliver services faster without destabilizing your focus on business goals and new customer acquisitions.

Here's a look at whether PWAs are a good fit in the enterprise.


What are progressive web apps?

In the last few years, with the enhancement of web browsers and their ability to support many of the new HTML, CSS, and JavaScript components and standards, web apps have gained more features that allow them to function much like native Android or iOS apps.

You can think of PWAs as responsive websites that, depending on the user's browser capabilities, can progressively enhance their built-in features automatically to look and feel like a native web app. Their basic components are:

  • Web app manifest: For expressing native-like features such as having an app icon on the home screen
  • Service worker(s): For background tasks and offline support
  • Application shell architecture: For rapid loading with service workers

PWAs: Pros and cons

Although these will quickly change as browsers continue to add new features, here's an attempt to summarize the value of PWAs with some pros and a con.


Indexing and discoverability

If you are aware of the money and effort spent trying to market your apps in each proprietary marketplace, you'll be pleased to know that PWAs make you forget all of that.

Search engines see your PWA like a website, so apps are easily indexed and even able to show different layers of content as "different apps" (this applies especially to content-centric applications such as blogs, magazines, social networks, etc.).

Low friction and simple updates

In 2014, 65 percent of U.S. smartphone users were downloading zero apps per month, and in 2016, that number was 49 percent. PWAs circumvent this general disinterest because they don't need to be downloaded. They don't need to live on any app store, and they don't need installation or updates. They are simply published and immediately available to every user opening them up.

Universal access and shareability

There are no geographic restrictions or arbitrary policies imposed by app stores, making the process of publishing your app straightforward. PWAs can be shared in the same way you'd share a website, by copying its URL—although some PWAs lose this advantage when they hide the URL to seem more app-like.

Mobile data savings and offline functionality

Recent web standards such as service workers make it much easier for web developers to build applications that allow you to cache or store data on your local device so that you can use certain features of the app without an Internet connection. You could, for example, edit a document in a PWA while disconnected from the Internet, and that data would be synced with the app's servers the next time you open it with a working Internet connection.

Offline-first applications are an important subject for enterprises that operate in markets with expensive or slow Internet access. Inconsistent network connections can cause apps to drain your phone's battery if they're programmed to just keep trying to ping servers. A PWA called "Konga" was able to reduce data usage by 92 percent and solve this problem.


iOS devices are not 100 percent ready for PWAs

Although we've seen iOS versions of Opera, Chrome, and Firefox improving fast, we're still waiting for Safari to catch up. Many PWA features can already be implemented, and it has been proved that dumping marketplaces does not necessarily mean you're losing much, but since it's never exclusively a matter of technology, we'll have to wait for Apple's decision regarding service workers on Webkit.

NOTE: The advantages listed below will work on Safari iOS, with the exception of "Data Savings," which requires a service worker.

Progressive web apps for the enterprise

Progressive web apps aren't perfect yet, but I predict that, like hybrid apps, they will quickly gain popularity and be adopted by many organizations. Because they're simply web apps, PWAs can be built from pre-existing website code, and their features can be activated progressively based on target devices and browsers. The advertising model is the same as any other website—try to increase your site's page rank on Google. Along with other prominent web developers, I believe that PWAs are another step toward web apps that eventually replace native apps.

So how are PWAs relevant in the enterprise arena? Here's a simple question to start with: "Are enterprises able to adopt this new technology right now, without wasting resources?" The short answer is "Absolutely." But let's explore this enterprise angle in more detail with some use cases from early adopters that have already made the switch.

The progressive path to PWAs

The Weather Company (an IBM business) is an excellent example of how to define priorities and get ready to transition toward a PWA, progressively. It started by moving all its services to HTTPS, later integrating web push notifications (creating 1 million opt-ins in only three months). Once these two steps were completed, it added service workers to its website, which now used HTTPS (which is required when using service workers for security purposes).

By the way, regardless of whether you build a PWA or not, you should definitely migrate your websites to HTTPS since Chrome and Google search results will indicate that HTTP sites are not secure. There's a whole website specifically about migrating to HTTPS.

The Weather Company's plan for 2017 starts with refactoring and removing legacy code to eventually switch its entire platform to PWAs. 

Save (a lot of) money

As mentioned in previous sections, you can simply upgrade existing websites to PWAs in some cases, so PWAs cost less to build. Also, the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that PWAs are built on are common skills among developers, so finding fairly priced talent to build them shouldn't be hard either. You probably have qualified developers already.

Marketing is another area where you can save a lot of money with PWAs. There's no need to spend resources marketing your app across several different app stores either. Just drive people to the website. When Housing.com decided to build a PWA, its per-user acquisition costs dropped from $3.75 with its Android native app to 7 cents.

Sell your service, immediately

Asking people to download your app for a single, quick purchase is an annoyance for users. MakeMyTrip.com used to ask users to download its native app in order to enter a booking, but last year it transitioned to a PWA and it is now seeing three times more bookings. 

Large-scale apps that made it

Alibaba, the world's largest B2B marketplace, switched to a PWA for its mobile web experience in November 2016, increasing conversion rates by 76 percent across browsers. It increased its monthly active users on iOS by 14 percent and on Android by 30 percent. (View the full case study here).

Social networks are migrating to PWAs too

Since PWAs are also great for content-focused platforms, social networks are not left out. Very recently (February 2017), Twitter finished its transition to a progressive web app. While that is too recent to qualify as a solid case study, you can read an early Twitter PWA performance analysis done by one of Google's top engineers.

Enterprises can choose to switch to PWAs today

Even with the benefits and simplicity of transitioning to PWAs, some companies might resist because they have a strong iOS user base or they don't want to take a chance on a new technology under active development. But there really is no need to wait, as the Weather Company has demonstrated.

You can keep maintaining your native apps while progressively integrating PWA components into your mobile website. Browsers are being updated faster than you think, and soon you may be looking at your traffic data and realize that your websites are getting more traffic than your native apps.


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