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Progressive web apps: Capable and cost-effective

Progressive web apps, or PWAs, can be a great alternative to pricey native apps, but they have their limitations. By Kevin Goodger Sep 22, 2020

Everyone’s heard the famous catchphrase “there’s an app for that,” and with over 2.2 million available on the App Store alone, it’s probably true. Whether you’re looking to order food for delivery or figure out the best time to take a bathroom break during a movie, there’s a good chance you can find an app that will do exactly what you’re looking for.

While that’s great for the average user, the typical native app is not accessible to B2B businesses with limited marketing budgets. An app with basic features typically costs around $50,000, and more complex apps cost well over 6 figures. They also have to be consistently monitored and updated after release, adding to the price and effort.

Not every business needs a feature-rich or flashy app, and many can’t justify the development price of a native app. That’s where progressive web apps, or PWAs, come in.

PWAs excel in information-heavy applications common to many B2B organizations, like datasheets and instructional information. A well-designed PWA can provide a strong user experience at an affordable price, but it’s important to consider what the app needs to do and where it needs to do it.

PWAs and native apps: What’s the difference?

A progressive web app (PWA) is different from the typical app you would find on the App Store or Play Store, which is called a native app.

Native apps are installed directly to your device and must be developed specifically for each operating system (typically Android and iOS).

A PWA, on the other hand, looks and feels like a native app but is not installed to your device unless you want it to be. It’s delivered through the web with common coding languages, such as HTML or CSS, and should work on any platform with a standard browser.

“PWAs were created out of the desire to avoid building a website in a native app,” explains Ryan Iusi, Managing Developer at Motum. “They use web-based programming to create something that can work offline, using tools like APIs and other browser storage solutions. They function just like a native app would.”

What PWAs can do

Aside from lower cost and a simplified development process, one of the best features of PWAs is their ability to function offline, a useful feature in any scenario where a Wi-Fi or data signal is unavailable.

PWAs sync in the background whenever they are connected to a network. Like a native app, they can be installed to your phone, but they don’t need constant access to the internet.

“A good PWA is responsive and mobile-friendly, it loads very quickly and it's available offline,” says Phil Richards, Web Developer at Motum B2B.

“Imagine you're in a situation where you don't have reliable internet access, like a job site or a factory floor, and you need to reference some documents. If you can't rely on having a good internet connection, having that information available to you offline in a PWA is a huge advantage.”

PWAs are great for content-based applications such as databases because they allow users to easily access information across almost any device, with or without a connection.

A few common uses for PWAs in B2B organizations include:

  • Offline payment procedures
  • Hardware connectivity (printers, scanners, etc.)
  • Product orders
  • Installation instructions and service history

“PWAs are good for displaying content to the end-user,” says Iusi. “From a B2B standpoint, businesses are usually trying to share information about the products to the end-user and sometimes internally. PWAs are great for that.”

Example: Creating a PWA for easy access to product info

When a chemical construction company asked us to create an easy way for their specialists to access product information and videos on-site, a progressive web app was the clear choice. The app provides a comprehensive product catalogue with important safety and technical information and can be downloaded for offline use.

PWAs are also much easier to build compared to a native app, saving time and money on development.

“If you're building a native app, you have to choose if it's on Android or iOS or both, and then you would need to have two separate repositories of that programming,” explains Iusi. “One of the benefits of a PWA is you're only building it once for all devices.”

What PWAs can’t do

Thanks to their web-centric design, PWAs don’t have to follow requirements set by the App or Play Store, which gives developers more flexibility and saves time in the development process.

That can be a double-edged sword. Apple and Google operating systems place restrictions on apps that aren’t available in their respective stores, which limits the number of features PWAs can take advantage of.

“PWAs are pretty restricted on iOS devices in particular,” says Richards. “Apple blocks a lot of functionality to native devices, so you lose things like face ID and touch ID authentication, Bluetooth, Siri, and access to the push notifications. There's a storage limit as well.”

Because of these limitations, PWAs are usually not practical for applications where complex features are required, such as photo editing apps, apps that require Bluetooth connectivity, video-heavy apps or games.

Are progressive web apps right for me?

The short answer: that depends.

As our phones become more powerful, people expect apps, and therefore PWAs, to have advanced features and native device integration.

“PWAs can't be the future of apps unless they are allowed to access all the same device features as a native app,” says Richards. “As long as Apple and Google block the user from using things like Bluetooth, push notifications and camera functionality, PWAs just can't take over.”

“There will always be native apps that do things PWAs can't do,” he adds.

In the right situation with the right application, a PWA is a cost-effective way for B2B businesses to showcase products, share information and support the sales team. PWAs excel at tasks that don’t require complex features or internet connectivity.

Apps provide a fast-track to a desired outcome. In 2019, smartphone users spent about 90 percent of their mobile time within apps (as opposed to the web). PWAs recreate the look and feeling of a native app, but without the high cost and intensive development process.

“A PWA essentially is an app,” says Richards. “The web is there but people are not using it, they don't want to open up a browser and type in your website, they want to tap the icon on their home screen. A PWA offers quick access. It feels like using a native app, and it fits into that mental model that people have when using a mobile device.”

If you need an ace up your sleeve at the next meeting, site visit or tradeshow, a PWA can be designed with the style and functionality to really impress.

Interested in developing a PWA or native app for your business? Get in touch with one of our web experts today. We’ll help you decide which option is best for you.