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Progressive Web Apps - What Is Their Role?

The past five years have been filled with news that progressive web apps (PWAs) are either the future of the Internet, or they are as dead as a doornail. The truth is somewhat less sensational than that, as it turns out.

PWAs have an excellent niche that is slowly growing. Emergen Research puts their market cap at over $10 billion by 2027. Not bad. And by tracking how often progressive web app ‘service workers’ are being invoked in a popular browser like Chrome, we get some idea of the percentage of sites that are making use of PWA tech, in whole or in part.

For anyone who does not speak ‘graph’, that represents around 19% of Chrome page loads invoking a service worker. Knowing that PWAs really are a growing market, we can now examine what makes them interesting, and how they are implemented.

What Is a Progressive Web App?

Simply put, a progressive web app has the simplicity of an app, without the need for an app store download. Instead, it works within an existing web browser. It does not require separate bundling or distribution, it responds rapidly, and the same version of the app’s code will work across multiple operating systems and devices.

Some seasoned programmers might shudder, thinking about the old days of cross-platform code; also known as Java. But PWAs are fairly spry, making use of service workers and web app manifests to run standard, browser-friendly code.

The advantages are clear: No need to maintain a bunch of different code bases for iOS, Android, and Windows. No need to mess with app stores unless that is desirable. And a clean, responsive interface that is largely the same between all supporting web browsers.

Progressive Web Apps - What Is Their Business Impact?

Because PWAs are more rapidly developed, and maintaining their codebase is so much simpler than traditional cross-platform apps, there are a lot of business models that they fit into.

One popular role of progressive web apps is ‘made to order’ productivity applications, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses. If, for example, a business needed a cut-down version of a shared accounting and inventory platform, that could be quite easily done. Within a year, they are likely to save money when compared to the big subscription services.

Another is self-contained helper apps that use an affiliate model. For example, a fast, simple mortgage calculator could then ask the user if they want to get comparative quotes, and the owner would take a small percentage of every referred sale. The same would be true for insurance calculators. And a variation on the theme might be something that suggests fishing sites in the user’s area, and makes their money off of the Amazon affiliate program (or a chain of pro shops, etc.) by selling the correct gear and lures for the typical game fish in the area.

The common theme here is: Fast simplicity that works on any device. Whether the business is making its money off of custom design fees, code tailoring and maintenance, or offering a free service with an affiliate or sales backend, they’re delivering what the user wants: Money and time savings as the progressive web app delivers the level of information management that they require.

The Future of Progressive Web Apps

The ability to offer ‘lite’ versions of traditionally complex web subscription services means that there are a lot of verticals to explore. Starbucks, Uber, and Spotify might have their particular PWA niches sewn up, but there is a lot of room in other industries. Fashion, travel, retail, sports, gambling, productivity, and even games (such as the addictive ‘2048’ PWA) have plenty of room for PWA innovation.

The simplicity of a browser interface means that no matter how devices evolve in the near future, there’s likely to be a role for progressive web apps. There are already experiments with incorporating real-world web browser displays in the wildly popular VR chat rooms. Virtual Market 4 allowed VR users to touch a product on the web, and bring up a 3D image of it in their environment. That product, such as a couch, could then be used or modelled by the avatars in the simulation. When they were done with it, a simple click on the virtual browser made the product vanish.

But PWA applications for future user interfaces do not even need to be that complex. Augmented Reality (AR) already allows for enhanced browser-based interfaces that work with real or virtual touch-screen controls. Progressive web apps will seamlessly operate in such an environment.

The growth numbers over the last five years are certainly no fluke. Expect progressive web apps to make up a significant chunk of commercial web space for many years to come.

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