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Progressive Web Apps – bridging the gap between apps and websites

by Patrick Sinke on May 30, 2018 · 13 comments

Apps, websites, mobile sites

For a long time, developers had to choose whether they would build a (mobile) web site or an app to reach their audience. Both have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Web sites are platform independent, but lack functionality and cannot be used offline. Apps deeply integrate with the device on which they are installed but have to be developed for each platform and are not as easily updated.

Progressive Web Apps

The solution for that is called a Progressive Web App. Basically, it’s a website with added functionality. And there are a number of featues that a PWA requires.

First, a PWA-enabled website should contain an SSL certificate in order to prevent Man in the Middle (MitM) attacks between the app and the backend.

Sceond, it contains a JSON file called a Web Application Manifest. This file holds information about the name of the application, links to the web app icons or image objects and details about the splash screen.

Last but not least, a PWA has a feature called service workers. These are little JavaScript programs who enable push notifications, background data loading and caching. But wait, there’s more. They also provide access to important features of your mobile device like location, camera and things like Apple Pay. And another thing, web features like WebAssembly (for executing near-native code in the webbrowser) are possible with service workers too. This property of the PWA truly bridges the gap between web pages and app features.

Are we there yet?

Although the technology is promising, there are still some hurdles to be taken. Not all features of all mobile devices are supported yet. So is Touch ID not useable without an extra layer like Phone Gap or Cordova. Also, push notifications do not work on iOS devices because background processes are required for service workers and not supported (yet).

The word “progressive” in PWA stands for the idea that although not all functionality is supported by every device, the features that are enabled will work anyway, without breaking the entire app. So if push notification do not work, the site is still able to cache and refresh data. Basically, it’s the next step after progressive web sites, that enabled developers to build one site for many different screen resolutions and input types.

If PWA’s are going to be the next big thing is still a question. But they will pave the way for a smoother user experience across devices and a more generic design of apps anyway. The gap between native apps and websites has become narrower, although still not fully bridged.

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