26 Feb Progressive Web Apps – Is the browser still The Killer App?
I remember the first time I saw a graphical web browser. It was in the basement of Dalhousie University’s Killam Library, where the advanced computer labs were located at that time. The year was 1993. I was still in high school, but a Computer Science student invited me and a friend to come and see The Coffee Pot, the world’s first web cam. Web browsers were containers for all sorts of amazing things. They were a window on the world. Now, we could even see a coffee pot in Cambridge, England in real time! Browsers made magic happen. This continue for many years… until 2007 to be exact.
The arrival of smart phones
Before the iPhone, there were many different approaches to building mobile experiences with websites. The mobile web, however, was still a niche. Only people with generous employers had a phone that could browser the web, and the experience was rudimentary at best. The desktop experience for anything more than checking email was #1.
When the iPhone launched, there was a lot of hype around apps. Initially, Steve Jobs wanted 3rd party apps to be restricted from running natively on iPhones, favoring a more browser-centric, web-based approach. When his mind was changed to allow apps, it was a win for apps and pushed mobile browser development to the back burner.
Apps – losing their lustre
What followed was a gold rush in app development. Developers and inventors saw a panacea of wealth ripe for the taking. Everyone had an app idea. Before, there had been crazy ideas for making money in browsers. Now, everyone wanted to make something and sell it for a nominal sum. If it got attention, wealth would surely follow! If you were too late with your idea, you’d miss out to someone else.
Even at that time, concepts that were basically web sites were built as apps in order to be easy to find in the App Store. Google Play became a thing as well – and fast forward to 2018 and beyond, and you will find hundred of thousands, if not millions, of apps. The success of iOS and Android have been built on the number of apps in their app stores. Others, like Blackberry OS, WebOS, Firefox OS, Windows Mobile, and many more died because they were seen as having dead ecosystems for apps.
The world, during these years, has changed.
Maintaining two sets of apps is expensive and time consuming. Different dev and QC cycles for a company’s app experience drives up complexity and overhead. Apps are expensive; there has to be a solid ROI to make it worth the effort. And the mobile web, as we know it, is changing rapidly. What was once considered only doable as an app is now likely possible through the mobile web.
Chrome OS pushed the boundaries of what’s possible in a browser. Chrome has become almost interchangeable with Android and almost concurrently, the mobile web has improved immensely. Mobile user experience has improved and the border between sites and apps has become fuzzy. In some cases, developers create a frame app to pull and display mobile web pages; this is essentially window dressing to ensure an organization has a presence in app stores. This may not be a requirement much longer. Mobile web apps have more access to native functionality and – coming soon – will be able to be included in app stores.
Browsers can support apps, too!
Microsoft and Google both have plans to allow browser-based apps to be listed in their stores, which will legitimize browser-based apps for mass appeal. No longer will sites have to instruct users how to create a home screen link in order to quick launch their site.
These are early days, but this change is significant. It allows publishers to build a standards-compliant web presence that renders on all devices and screen dimensions. It’s largely device-agnostic, but provides better access to what used to be native functionality, such as notifications, through a browser. There will still be cases to be made for developing native apps, for sure, but now more opportunities to exploit the potential of the mobile web will be available. It will be a matter of using the right tool for the job.
Publishers and developers can focus on mobile web development and worry less about maintaining two separate code sets for two different platforms. While web development in the responsive age isn’t exactly trivial, development shops are already doing cross browser testing and development for different browsers and screen sizes.
A return to the killer app
When I first saw the Mosaic web browser in the early days of the graphical web, I was excited by the potential. It seemed like there was so much possibility. Now, 26 years later, it feels strange to say that I feel the same way. The browser is still paramount and … the ultimate killer app!