Progressive Web Apps: A Conversation with Google's Alex Russell

Stephanie Cox Picture

by Stephanie Cox | Last Updated: Jan 28, 2019

Have you heard of a Progressive Web App (PWA)? If not, then it’s time to get seriously educated because they’re fundamentally changing mobile web and have been around for more than three years now. Think of a PWA as an installable web app that brings together what you love about a native mobile app and delivers it on the web. They’re supported by all of the major tech players (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, Mozilla, etc.) and major consumer brands (Starbucks, Pinterest, Spotify, etc.) have already taken advantage of PWAs and seen phenomenal results. That's why I was so excited to have a conversation with one of the engineers that conceptualized PWAs–Google's Alex Russell.

Lumavate's VP of Marketing, Stephanie Cox: So I'm really excited to talk to you all about Progressive Web Apps and where the future of web is headed. When I tell people about PWAs, one of the things I usually say is that it’s the best of both native mobile apps and the mobile web coming together. Would you agree?­­

Google's Senior Software Engineer, Alex Russell: Sure. Imagine fast forwarding to the end of the story where we come to a place where the web is as successful on mobile as it has been on desktop. We should get to a place where users have all the upsides of the web–it should be safer, faster, you should get an operating runtime, applications shouldn't be massive. All those things should be continual benefits that the web delivers, but you shouldn't have to give up all the nice things that you like about native apps to get there.

SC: One thing that’s fascinating to me is that PWAs were kind of a group effort from people at Google, Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla…can you tell me how you all came together to create this concept?

AR: So one of the things that’s deep but seems shallow about the difference between PWAs and other platforms is that with other platforms, you have to change your deployment model. So this has practical implications–if you can’t update your app whenever you want to push, suddenly your engineering velocity goes down, your design philosophy goes down, your iteration rate starts to stall. You wind up having to wait on app store reviews or some sort of automated process. You stop having that ability create and to modify content. This has implications for experimental frames, for logging, for all sorts of technologies that the web has come to embody both positively and negatively. And that meant that when you wanted to build something with these “web technologies” but deploy them to these other models, you had a kind of package them up. And by doing that, you remove that super power–that ability to deploy almost instantly. You can still make a native app with Cordova or Phonegap, but people don't make web apps because HTML, Javascript, and CSS aren’t fun. They aren’t the most fun part of anybody’s day. So why do people make stuff on the Web? I think it's because of that deployment model. And so we honed in on this idea, and a bunch of people (in the tech community) at that time had been thinking in this way and were the key people who helped us drive the concept of PWAs forward.

This is how how all of this stuff works–it’s a set of individuals who are looking to the left and looking to the right and trying to build a larger community of folks who have problems and need solutions to work together to do it. And then there’s this big discussion of, are the forums that we build successful for that? Are they open enough? But the key thing is to pin our hopes on is this idea that it's a combination of people who work on browsers who–we like to say–can ship bits that change the world.

SC: What’s the biggest benefit to doing a PWA as opposed to a mobile-friendly website, or even a native mobile app?

AR: We see that a lot of folks privately tell us that when they build a good PWA, they see reasonably equivalent returns in terms of user engagement between their native mobile applications and their PWAs. When they build a bad one, that doesn't happen. The benefits of that “try before you buy” model and optional installability also require that teams really use that segmentation and analytics to understand the difference between a user who is and isn't installed as a PWA, so that they can compare installed native apps–which have this very high drop off rate at the top of their funnel–versus the web, which has a very low drop off rate at the top of the funnel but very low “conversion” that goes deeper for more engaged users. So the idea is that hopefully when users become engaged with a high quality experience and we help them install to the home screen and keep them engaged with things like push notifications, that that’s an experience that will continue to work really well for those users and will continue to deliver a lot of those benefits. The teams that are able to keep their eye on that experience and not treat it as a technology tradeoff but rather as a “level of investment on the web” question can succeed across a lot of different form factors from a single code base.

SC: Tell me what you think the future holds for PWAs

AR: I kind of view it as a slow build in terms of what the future holds. We're going to continue to add these capabilities so there will be an increasing body of applications which previously weren't possible on the web, and they will be made possible. And then we'll see, first, if we did a good job exposing them. And that lets developers determine what they ask for next, because we want our “To Do” list to come from the needs the developers express. And then I think it's kind of inevitable that PWAs will just be in more places that native apps are today. I can go back this idea that technology shouldn't matter, and it's really just about delivering the best experience for your service at the lowest cost. I think the Web can compete and win on that basis, to the extent that the Web is not sort of treated prejudicially by operating systems. I’m hoping for a lot more of that.

Mobile Conversations are excerpts from Lumavate’s Mobile Matters podcast. You can listen to the 2-part episode in full here and here, and find more episodes with other mobile experts here.

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