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Idea of the Week: Progressive Web Apps

At our Code 2016 conference a couple of months ago, Progressive Web Apps received quite a bit of attention. Marcos Caceres talked about how they are enabled by Service Workers, Elise Chant showed us how to use Manifests to install them, and several presenters referred to PWA in their presentations.

You might remember that PWAs were introduced as a concept by Alex Russell back at Web Directions 2015, so we figured it would be a good idea to use Scroll Magazine to put Progressive Web Apps in perspective.

Progressive Web Apps for everyone

By John Allsopp

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 was a watershed moment in modern technology, for all manner of reasons, but I want to focus on one particular aspect: its impact on the Web.

Back in the 1990s, those of us thinking about the future of Web design were already imagining a genuinely mobile Web. No small part of the impetus behind CSS, and the then radical “standards based” approach to Web development, revolved around the realisation that the Web wasn’t going to be desktop-only for ever (even if, at the time, laptop computers were rare and expensive, wi-fi non-existent, and accessing even email via a mobile phone was considered Jetsons-like futuristic).

The iPhone changed all that, despite in many ways being worse than the phones that came before it: slower CPUs, slower networks (2G only!), no physical keyboard. And as hard as it is to imagine now, it had no apps.

So, why did it succeed? My largely-impossible-to-verify speculation is that it was in no small part because it was the first genuinely usable mobile Web experience, and this set it apart from all other mobile devices at the time.

Almost no-one before had even tried – let alone come close to – making the mobile Web experience not totally suck. Apple did an end-run around these previous efforts. Controversially (among the handful of people aware of CSS media types at the time) it didn’t support the mobile media type in CSS, choosing rather to present the full web page, rendered into a theoretical 960px wide window and scaling the page to fit the ‘real’ viewport width of 320px.

I’d argue that the Web was critically important to the success of the iPhone, and the relationship between the two over the intervening nine years is instructive, and might point to the future of the Web.

That future looked, for many, kind of shaky not all that long ago. Indeed, some like Alex Russell – to whom we’ll return in a moment – argue that now is very much a watershed moment in the Web’s history. Apple’s interest in moving the Web forward, highly evident in the period between 2003 and around 2009 as they released a brand new best-of-breed browser – Safari – implemented then proposed as standards many of the features we now take for granted in modern web design (CSS animations, transitions, transforms, gradients, Web Fonts among many others), has slowed to a trickle.

Apple took years to adopt IndexedDB, among many other important Web technologies, and while all other browsers adopted an “evergreen” approach of continual improvement and automatic updating of both desktop and mobile browsers, Apple seemed stuck on an upgrade cycle for their browsers which marched in lock step with their Operating Systems, and ran in the order of years not weeks.

As the iOS App Store added more and more apps – they now number in the millions – the Web seemed less and less important to Apple (the same is not untrue of Android, too) and, indeed, to the future of computing. Web Apps were widely considered slow and ‘janky’, and lacked access to many of the device capabilities native apps could tap into that made Web content look endangered in the world of shiny 60FPS apps, with their access to the underlying device APIs and features, and – importantly – ability to be easily installed on the user’s home screen.

Meanwhile, Android is also an important part of this story. Coming from a company whose DNA was the Web, hope might have been had that Android would pick up the mantle, and make the Web a first class citizen. But Android increasingly went toe-to-toe with iPhone and the stock Android browser became increasingly outdated, even as Google was instrumental in moving the Web forward through Chrome.

Usage rates for the Web in comparison with native mobile apps fell, the importance of mobile computing rose and Wired famously declared the Web to be dead.

But. A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.

All along, Google had been acquiring a team of smart, deeply experienced Web-native people, people who cared deeply about the Web, people exemplified by (although he’s far from alone) Alex Russell. Alex, who helped give the world Dojo, one of the earliest richly featured JavaScript frameworks, and ChromeFrame, an ingenious approach to getting a modern Web rendering engine into older Internet Explorer versions using ActiveX.

Folks like Alex, and Domenic Denicola, and many others at Google never lost faith in the Web.

Along with others at browser vendors like Mozilla and Opera and framework developers like Ember and elsewhere, these folks thought long and hard about what worked and what didn’t when it comes to moving the Web platform forward in an age of sophisticated native platforms like iOS and Android. They gathered and published their thoughts in the ‘Extensible Web Manifesto’. And over the last 12 months or so we’ve really started to see the fruits of this way of thinking, under the moniker of “Progressive Web Apps”.

Alex kicked this phase off when he published “Progressive Web Apps, escaping tabs without losing our soul“, and a few weeks later we were fortunate to have him open our Code 2015 conference with a keynote that expanded on these ideas.

The last 12 months has really seen these ideas start to become very much part of the everyday life of front end developers. Service worker is reaching a level of maturity in Chrome, and increasingly Mozilla, has strong interest from the Edge team at Microsoft, and even cautious public interest from the Webkit team. Other pieces of the puzzle, including push notifications, and Web Manifests (not to be confused with AppCache!) are becoming usable. And more importantly still, a pattern for developing Web apps that are progressive, that start life in the browser tab, and potentially migrate onto the user’s home screen has emerged.

Suddenly, I feel a renewed optimism for the Web, not simply that it can keep up with or compete with native, but that it can continue to embody the “webbiness” central to its success and importance.

The technologies that enable this new approach to Web development are maturing, and the philosophies and users’ mental models are still emerging, but it is a time of tremendous opportunity and promise. If you’re not already exploring Web Manifests, Service Workers, and Push notifications, these are low barrier to entry technologies that can be used to progressively improve your sites and apps today, even as we wait for their full adoption.

These are exciting times, full of promise and opportunity, and they don’t come around very often.

The emergence of CSS in the late 1990s, Ajax, jQuery and a more application-like Web experience in the early 2000s, mobile in the late part of the 2000s – just a small number of similar revolutionary shifts come to mind.

Don’t waste this opportunity.

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Going to #wds18 has given me inspiration to attend more conferences. Meeting tech folks like myself and learning from each other is pretty amazing!

Hinesh Patel Ruby and React Developer