PWAs vs. Web Apps vs. Mobile Web: A Conversation with Microsoft's Jeff Burtoft

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by Stephanie Cox | Last Updated: Feb 22, 2019

One of the questions I get most often when telling people about Progressive Web Apps is, "Ok...but what makes this different than a _____?" That blank is sometimes filled in with "native app", sometimes "web app", sometimes "responsive website"...and the list goes on. So when I sat down to talk with Microsoft's Jeff Burtoft–a instrumental member of the PWA "founding fathers", as I like to call them–I was so excited to get a really clear, concise explanation on the differences between these technologies. So if you're looking for a quick answer to that burning PWA question, look no further than this conversation with a PWA founder.

Lumavate's VP of Marketing, Stephanie Cox: You’ve been involved with Progressive Web Apps from their conception a few years back. Talk to me a bit about how the concept came about.

Microsoft's Principal Program Manager, Jeff Burtoft: I think that our history has been pointing us in this direction. If you look at things like the web app manifest spec, it started out as part of a widget spec years ago. Then it was deprecated and then we opened it back up. It's just one of those ideas that you couldn't keep down. Progressive Web Apps are really just a pinnacle of a bunch of technologies that have evolved together.

SC: When you think about Progressive Web Apps and compare them to traditional web apps, what are the main differences?

JB: It’s often hard to even define the difference between a web page and a web app, right?  We kind of use them interchangeably, but it's really about having the right technologies in place to be able to build an app-like experience. Going back to the original discussion that we were having about web apps many years back, one of the things that Alex (Russell) was really passionate about (when we were conceptualizing PWAs) was keeping the URL, and one of the things that I was really passionate about was ensuring that it was always up to date. And so you can't really draw a line in the sand and say, “This is the feature that makes it a Progressive Web App”. It’s really about looking at the web and realizing there are all these really important features, and when you get enough of them together, the experience becomes an application.

SC: When you think about the benefits of PWAs from the eyes of a developer, what immediately comes to mind?

JB: Progressive Web Apps allow you to have your own space on the home screen. They allow you to be one of those first class experiences that users expect. So when a developer asks me why should I build a PWA, one of the things that I try to take them back to are the foundations of the PWA. Let’s talk about what service workers could do for you, and the benefits that you can get there. Let's talk about what adding a manifest to your site could do for you, and the benefits that you get there, and kind of take them back through the process of the different pieces that build a Progressive Web App rather than just saying, “Hey, you should have a Progressive Web App because then you get X, Y, and Z”.

SC: Have you started to see brands and development teams think of PWAs as a potential app replacement?

JB: That’s actually one of the strategies that we see more and more often; We have an Android app. We have an iOS app. We have a Windows app. We would really love to have one app that runs everywhere. And so if you're comparing it to a strategy for native apps, then you're basically looking at the value prop you get for a PWA and the value prop that you get for a native app. It's a challenge sometimes to meet all of the goals that you get with a native–and I can tell you that's one of those things that we at Microsoft are thinking about all the time, and the folks at Google and Mozilla and Apple are thinking about all the time. How can we make that experience on the web just like a native one? But for now, developers should be looking at their strategy from that perspective–they've got to figure out, can I meet the same goals the same design principles the same needs that I'm meeting with my native app? And if I can, let's totally do a Progressive Web App.

Mobile Conversations are excerpts from Lumavate’s Mobile Matters podcast. You can listen to their full conversation here, and find more episodes with other mobile experts here.

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