Progressive Web Apps: The Future of Mobile Web (Part Two)

Episode #012: Alex Russell, Senior Staff Software Engineer at Google

Episode Information

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are fundamentally changing how we think about mobile web and the impact this technology will have on how brands engage with consumers on mobile is just getting started. That’s why you need to get started on implementing you first PWA for your business, and reap all of the benefits that PWAs can bring such as managing one code base, controlling your own publishing, increased adoption and engagement, and more. In this episode of Mobile Matters, we talk with Alex Russell from Google about what to expect next with PWA functionality, the benefits of PWAs, the importance of the user experience, and his advice for developing your first PWA.

Stephanie's Strong Opinions

  1. There is more and more functionality coming to Progressive Web App (PWAs) in the very near future and Alex shares a snapshot of what we should expect. Consider this your PWA spoiler alert.
  2. The number of benefits of PWAs seems to be constantly growing. From managing one code base to controlling your own publishing to increased adoption and engagement, it’s hard to find a reason why you wouldn’t want to build a PWA.
  3. Don’t get so enamored with the technology that you overlook the user experience. Make sure you take into consideration what you’re trying to achieve from a business perspective and how you can accomplish that while delighting the user.

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Stephanie Cox (VP of Marketing at Lumavate): I’m Stephanie Cox and this is Mobile Matters. Today I'm joined again by Alex Russell at Google. Alex is a Senior Staff Engineer at Google and is an engineer on the Chrome web platform team. Most recently he helped design and lead the team that was developing Progressive web apps. In our previous episode, Alex shared a ton of great information about how the concept for PWAs was developed, and what it’s been like to see major Tech players adopt them. In part two my conversation with Alex, we talk a lot about what functionality Google plans to release her PWAs this year, how the user experience is such a vital component to a successful PWA, and what advice he would give you before you build your first progressive web app. And make sure you stick around to the end where I'll give my recap and top takeaways so that you can not only think about mobile differently, but implement it effectively. Welcome to the show again Alex.

What do you see as the next big evolution for PWAs?  

Alex Russell (Senior Software Engineer at Google): I think the first big thing is that, at least Chrome, is moving into the desktop PWA environment this year. As I mentioned, we've already shipped on Mac, Windows Linux, and Chrome OS, and we should be shipping on Mac sometime this spring. I'm very excited about that. And that means that on every supported Chrome platform, say iOS, every place we can ship real blank, we will be able to have web apps that are installable. So that is to say, if you wanted your potentially to have your mail client in its own standalone window that you can all tab to or open up a tab to. That should be possible as a web app on the desktop, and so that opens another frontier for this stuff where the web is already strong, but we start to see tools like Chromium embedded framework or Electron, causing developers to again shift their deployment model and incur pretty heavy costs, both in iteration speed, but also in security, in a lot of cases. And I think the attractive aspect that we can bring is, because it is, again, just the web and it's just running from Chrome or your other browser, that you get the benefit of auto platform updates and that users get the benefits of things like autofill and password sync and all the rest. So that's very exciting for me. We're building a whole set of capabilities to help developers address the capabilities of desktop that haven't been available, and that sort of dovetails into our existing capability investments on mobile. Where you see us doing things like improving the ability to launch things with higher quality icons, improving the shape of icons on modern versions of Android, as well as things like webshare and webshare target. Improved media pickers are working on contact access, global font access, file system access. We really want, in addition to things that we've done like, web bluetooth and web USB, we really want to expose all the capabilities of the end of line platform, so that the web, that there aren't are reasons for you to say no to building something on the web. Today, I always joke that most applications are in the business of drawing boxes and text most of the time, and the web is one of the best box and text drawing systems, ever. But that's not what an application is, right? An application is not just a text and box drawing thing. It's usually that plus some critical functionality, and so to the extent that the critical functionality isn't available on your platform, we want to open it up. All these dovetailing efforts right now, better media work, better encoders and decoder access, web assembly, or wasm, which is opening up. I joke that it is the capability of opening up 30 to 40% more of your CPU. Those sorts of things can transform specific workloads and make certain applications which, previously, just weren't approachable or something they can credibly do on the web. And I think that's extraordinarily exciting. My goal, my personal mission, is to bring most of computing back onto the web and putting client-side computing back on the web. So I think the more that we can give developers a reason say yes and fewer reasons to say no, the structural benefits the web already has in security, performance, stability and specifically in distribution, breath and friction those things will get unlocked when we do our job well and provide those capabilities. 

Stephanie Cox: So when you're talking to people about PWAs, what in your mind also what is the biggest benefit to doing a PWA over something like a traditional web app, like responsive web or even native mobile? 

Alex Russell:The biggest shift in thinking is about this kind of application model that's required to work reliably all the time. We find that the teams who come from a native mobile background have a really straightforward time making PWAs because they're already attuned to a set of constraints, both in terms of device performance, which is, by the way a huge and important factor in really understanding what the user is going to get. We see too many web developers still using desktop era and desktop class assumptions and frameworks, which don't work at all on mobile. React comes in for grubbing, Amber comes in for grubbing, for lots of predictable reasons just because they come from a desktop era, and they haven't dropped that legacy baggage yet and so it costs too much to build in that way. And we see that native app developers tend to on one hand, to assume that users will download too much upfront, which is not great, but they also come with a set of experience expectations which are set a little bit higher, and are able to think about the idea of the client being disconnected and then having to treat the server as it sometimes conversation, and not an all the time conversation. So that the model flip is the hardest thing for organizations to get their head around. And the benefits that are on the other side of it, both from instability and the ability to fold more of your investment in mobile into fewer code bases, which improves your velocity and improves return on single investments. Those benefits are large. 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. So, the benefits of that try before you buy model and optional solvability, also require that teams really do the 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 from the front or top of their funnel, versus the web, which has a very low drop rate at the top of the funnel but very low conversion into those deeper, 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 continue keep in front of them with things like push notifications. That's an experience that will continue to work really well for those users and that can continue to deliver lots of those benefits and so teams that we talk to who are able to kind of keep their eye on that sort of experience goal, and not treat it as a technology tradeoff, but treat it as more of a level of investment question on the web, can succeed across lots of different form factors from a single code base which has also benefits.

Stephanie Cox: So if someone comes and says, Alex, I'm thinking about creating my first PWA. What is the advice that you would give them? 

Alex Russell: My first question would be, where are you geographically? So a lot of times folks come to us and say I want to build a PWA, and then they come with a bunch of other things that they want to do. Right and some of those things are appropriate some of them aren't. And, if you're building in an emerging market or mostly for first internet users or first computing users, you'll make different choices both technically and in terms of what you'll build and how they will discover it, than you would, necessarily, in say Europe or the United States. I think they should try to figure out what their users need, and PWAs are an option. It may be the case, that if most of your traffic comes from search, and that's true on mobile as well, that the marginal value to installing something to the home screen is potentially quite low. But maybe the value to getting users reengaged with your content through push notifications is high. So, those are the choices that are unbundled with the PWA stack versus with a native application stack. You don't have to install a PWA, for instance, to start getting push notifications, if that makes sense. Whereas, with the native application you very much have to have the app installed in order to push. So, the opportunities space is a little bit different, and the ordering of your choice is also different. But yeah, I would approach it from a user experience perspective and then the business goals because I think those are the two, those are the two aspects that tend to dominate the conversation. So if someone comes and says, hey you know we're really succeeding here in our high-end, but we want to grow at the low end, whatever that means for the business. Either users that weren't spending a lot or who are value customers or who are in a market that is not as well served by mobile devices. Then yeah,  you should definitely build a PWA and you should make it as lightweight as possible because that's where the product market fit is. PWAs unlock that very lightweight distribution, that very low upfront friction and that means that the experience that you build with them for the right users can be huge. And really unlock the value of the service that you want to provide, because it's not really a technology choice you're trying to get people to make, you're trying to get them to start using your service.  

Stephanie Cox: So when you think about adoption curve and where we're at with PWAs and in terms of the number of companies that are really starting to include that as one of their ways that they deliver content on either on the desktop or on mobile. I know we're three years, over three and a half years into PWAs really being something that people are starting to become aware of. Tell me what you think the future holds. Is that two years from now we're seeing more you know 50% companies are the PWA? What does that look like to you? 

Alex Russell: I think it's going to be a market by market. So, sort of the aggregation of those specific and local business needs. Also, businesses tend to learn on very long time scales. One of the things we’ve observed in working with companies has been that the companies who tend to do really well with PWAs, are folks who have basically tried everything with native. They've had a contractor in. They’ve funded a speculative project out of a marketing budget, then decided that it's working well enough that that little experiment can come in-house and built native mobile teams. And they had a big fight with their web team that was like, we don't need that stuff and that's they do need it. And then, they realize that a lot of the funding that they are providing or the discounts that they provide to install native applications wind up just leading them with lower reach and lower marginal revenue. And so they come back to the web and they come back to PWAs, as a function of having learned all of those things. As PWAs combine that low initial friction and high reach of the web, with the potential for that high engagement, for that segment of users that you really want to capture over the long-haul, without making those an exclusive choice. A PWA is just a website. You don't have to convince someone to go install your PWA before they can start using it, they just go to your website and they’re using your website. So that set of learning that “come together” to cause people to be open to this plan, is where I think that the early folks have been. In terms of increasing their updates to make these investments and then really, in some cases, we've seen folks invest in PWAs, the technology side of the PWA. They adopt service workers, they put a home screen manifest in place, and then they do, they make technology choices, specifically about performance in the frameworks that they use and the way they deploy, that aren't appropriate for the markets they're trying to reach. And so, one of my concerns is that because this is now kind of pervasive in our industry, people are making across the board bad choices about tools and frameworks and that has meant that the value of a PWA goes down. The value of even building on the web at all for most users winds up being lower. So there's a big change that we're going to have to make as an industry here. I think it's as big as going from TLS to not TLS, going from an unencrypted web to an encrypted web. It's gonna to be on the same scale for us as a front end community to really recognize the importance of user experience for all users and not just for privileged and wealthy users. And businesses are learning these thoughts slowly, so I 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 possible. And then we'll see a) if we did a good job exposing them but also what that lets developers do and what they ask for next because we take our to-do list from the needs the developers express most strongly to us. And I think it's inevitable that PWAs will just be in more places then native apps are today. Again, I can go back to the idea that technology shouldn't matter. Technology shouldn't matter and it's really just about delivering that experience for your service, wherever it is, at the lowest cost. I think the web can compete and win on that basis, to the extent that the web is not treated prejudicially or poorly by the operating systems. So seeing Microsoft, as you say, get on the bandwagon and are really integrated PWAs into their OS has been really inspiring and I'm hoping for a lot more of that.

Stephanie Cox: So thinking about your favorite brands that are doing PWAs already, do you have any ones that you just absolutely love what they've done and the results that they've seen? 

Alex Russell: So I have to split this between the folks who are able to share able and willing to share their stats publicly from what I know privately. But the second group is not convincing anyone at all, although it makes me very happy. In that first group, I think the data that Pinterest has put out, where they really went back and thought hard about their web experience. On the back of making that set of investments both, on the one hand learning everything about the opportunity space in native, and coming back and realizing there was a big open opportunity for web, mobile web specifically. And then that turning into a big win for their users. Especially their users who, may have only had sort of an occasional relationship to the brand before. And then seeing what they did, the work they did to really slim down their front end, and really get to a place where, as experience it really feels good and really sings. They didn't throw out all the tools, but they did choose to hold them very differently to the way most people are building today. And so, those are the sorts of lessons and outcomes where they've got really positive, both engagement and user acquisition and retention metrics, that go on the single investment.Those are the ones that make me smile.  

Stephanie Cox: One last question for you. We've been talking all about progressive web apps, but I'd love to hear from your perspective, how else Chrome is making a play on mobile in general?

Alex Russell: Oh well, most of Chrome's users are mobile users. We are heavily, heavily interested in mobile and I think that probably comes across in a lot of our developer relations, I'm not in the developer relations group, but they spend a lot of time talking about what it takes to succeed on mobile because that's where our users are. And that isn't to say that desktop isn't important, we're doing the investments to unlock more of these abilities to bring PWAs to the desktop. We have a very, very large percentage of the world's desktop computing users using Chrome and we're very happy about it and want that to work well for them. But, as more screen time, as an increasing both absolute and fraction of screen time goes to mobile, we spend a, I would say outside as we're kind of late to the party, but we're heavily focused on making sure that the web works well for those users. I'd say almost a distraction. It drives me to distraction at least.  Making sure that we can come up with a set of incentives for developers, a set of tools for users that really let them do what they want to do on the web, on mobile devices. And that it's not just focusing on places where the web is already succeeding, like developments like the U.S, but also places where the web is, maybe, not part of the lexicon. I think there's a generational risk that if your first experience of computing is a mobile device and all that is native applications and the web sort of doesn't ever show any value there. You're not going to start typing URLs when you don't have computers for, and search may not be a functional experience when typing on that screen is a bad time. So, the web is going to have to show value, on the terms of every other application platform, it can't hold out hope that other factors will bring along for the ride and mobile. So those are the, those are the areas where you know I view PWAs actually being helpful and US also facing a larger set of risks.

Stephanie Cox: Like I said before there isn't anyone better to learn about PWAs from than Alex. He's been at the epicenter of PWAs from the very beginning and really continues to be one of the tech leaders driving them forward. How many times do you get an opportunity to talk to the person that's really responsible for causing a fundamental shift in the web and mobile? Talk about a dream guest everyone. Now, let's get some my favorite part of the show where we take the education and apply it to your business. There are so many great insights for my conversation with Alex that can really help transform how you think about mobile. Let's dive into my top three takeaways. First, if you haven't figured it out already PWAs are fundamentally, and I mean fundamentally, changing how we think about mobile web, and in my personal opinion this technology is just getting started everyone. PWAs were first introduced by Google in 2015, and they've seen significant momentum since then with major tech players like Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, Mozilla and more jumping on the PWA bandwagon. And this means that PWA functionality is constantly evolving. Just take a look at some of the items that Alex mentioned were planned for PWAs From a Google perspective, and that's just what he shares with us everyone, who knows what else they have up their sleeve. I anticipate we're going to see more and more functionality coming to PWAs to bring more parity between the web and native mobile apps. Plus when we're talking about mobile, it's important to remember that developing a PWA means you only have to manage one code based. Let me repeat, one code has everyone. As someone has been to the gauntlet of developing IOS and Android apps and Blackberry back in the day, I can't tell you how welcome of a message that actually is. The thought of managing one code base rather than having separate Android and iOS development teams is going to substantially increase development velocity. It’s also going to allow you to control the publishing of new features since PWAs completely bypass the App Store approval process. So let's think about this for a second. PWAs have a lot of the same functionality is native mobile apps, and that list of functionality is growing every day. They allow for increased development velocity. They allow you to control the publishing process, and did I mention I drive results to? Yep. That's right. Brands like Starbucks, Spotify, Pinterest and others have implemented PWAs and seen phenomenal results. Let's take a look at the Starbucks PWA for an example. It loads two times faster than the web property it replaced, and it drove a 65% increase in Starbucks reward registrations. And Pinterest? One of Alex's favorite examples of a PWA. It's saw 103% increase in weekly users, a 300% increase in session length, and it was the main driver for Pinterest of new user sign ups. This is why I believe PWAs are truly the future of mobile web. And don't forget, they also work on desktop too, so they might actually turn out to be the future of how we think about web in general.

Next, one of the comments that Alex made about how native app developers seem to transition to PWAs much easier than web developers who are primary focus on desktop really struck a chord with me. It made me start thinking about all the major consumer brands we've seen successfully implement PWAs already. I’ve mentioned Starbucks, Pinterest, Spotify, but there's also Trivago, Uber, Lyft, Twitter, Instagram, Tinder and that's just to name a few everyone. But all of them have seem to take this approach of creating their PWA as almost a replica of their native mobile app, and a lot of these examples we've seen the same team responsible for the native app also developed the PWA. And so Alex’s comment around how it's been easier for native app developers to transition a PWAS makes a ton of sense, but it got my wheels spinning about how there's so many other uses for PWAs other than just companions or potential replacements to native mobile apps. Although I fully support PWAs replacing a native mobile apps, but you also can think about them much broader than that. So really PWAs are beneficial anytime you would engage your user in the frictionless way that's compelling and lightning fast. And so, to all of you when it's our happen and what you need to do that? Well my answer is all the time. You should be doing that all the time. So then when I start thinking about how PWAs can be beneficial it's really an unlimited number of use cases in almost any industry. So I think we need to take a step back and truly consider the benefits PWAs bring in to the development process and the user experience, and find ways to incorporate them throughout the customer journey. Which really means the possibilities for PWAs are really endless. Which is personally really exciting to me both as a mobile marketer and as a user.

Finally, can we all make a promise to each other that we will not create bad PWAs. We've all seen bad examples of native mobile apps, websites, and more in our lifetime and I'm hoping we don't do the same with PWAs. So before you embark on a project to build your first PWA, make sure you take into consideration what you're trying to achieve from a business perspective. What's your ultimate goal? Who's your target audience? How will the user be able to achieve that goal in an easy way? What's your users actually need? What do they want? Does it make sense for the user to install the pwa. Will they opt into push notifications? These are just some of the questions that you need to be able to answer before developing a PWA to ensure that you're going to be successful. You also don't want to forget about incorporating and analytics into your PWA. Since PWAs are delivered via the web, you can utilize the same web app analytics platform, such as Google analytics as an example, that you already used for your other web properties. This will provide you with a wealth of information about your PWA so you can determine if you're achieving your original business goals, if there are challenges in your user experience, or if you're seeing increase results compared to your web or native mobile app properties that provide a similar functionalities to your PWA. Now, here's my challenge to you for this week. If you haven't already implemented a PWA for your business, then it's time to get to work people. PWAs are here and they’re adoption is only going to continue to Skyrocket. So take the time to brainstorm the best initial use case for a PWA for your business. Now, it doesn't have to be a massive project to get started, and you don't need to boil the ocean when it comes to functionality and what you deliver in the first iteration of your PWA. Since you control the roll out process it is extremely easy to roll out new functionality as often as you want , and it is going to be instantaneously available to all your users. So get the team together, brainstorm use cases for your PWA and get started on building it. You can thank me later.

I’m Stephanie Cox and you've been listening to Mobile Matters. If you haven't yet be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Until then be sure to visit and subscribe to get more access to thought leaders, best practices, and all things mobile.

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