Will Apps Die?
Back in 2007, Steve Jobs told the world that to develop for the iPhone; they’d have to build Web apps for Safari. The man was just a bit ahead of his time, while Apple did create apps, they were native apps more focused on preventing jail-breakers and over-keen developers. Fast forward a couple of years and the prophecy that Jobs spoke into existence is well on its way to being here. Web apps or more commonly known now as Progressive Web Apps (PWA) are littered over the internet. To say that most consumers don’t even know they’re using a PWA is a commendation to how seamless they have become. A few standouts are Aliexpress, Trivago, Forbes and Twitter lite. These PWAs have changed the way consumers interact with their mobile devices and brands, leading to longer session times logged, more messages sent and in the case of Tinder, more swiping right. They are a positively mobile-first approach, and yet they too have a shelf life.
Apps, as you know them, are first-party and third-party tools that aid the mobile experience, whether it be for entertainment through a game, Fortnight; communication with family and friends, Whatsapp; there’s even an app for your love-life, the infamous Tinder. Apps, also known as Native apps (NA) in the software realm are applications typically downloaded and optimised for the type of device it is downloaded to. They commonly make use of device-specific features, such as GPS, the cameras or the long-press function on iPhone.
PWAs, on the other hand, are, in essence, a website, accessed via a browser, not an app store, such as Chrome, Safari and Firefox, but they look like a native app. Web-apps optimise for the browser rather than the device that you are using. So, currently, they don’t have access to a lot of the hardware features that NAs have.
People like to use apps, that much is evident from the last decade. The PWAs of the previous few years have slowly been getting access to more features. The positive trend of enabling sites to function like native apps through an app shell, offline access, security features (Fingerprint ID/ Face ID) with the ease of an always-present navigation bar gives users more convenience than an NA ever could.
Additionally, there is no need to commit to a web-app; they are on-demand and always accessible without taking up the dwindling storage of a smartphone. You don’t even have to see the web-app on the home screen if you’re seeking a more minimal look. No more are the days where you will have to delete the 1000 or so dog photos or selfies chasing that last 10mb to have enough space to squeeze in a behemoth of a native app.
It’s clear that web-apps do have a significant amount of upside; the near-instantaneous loading times (on the second visit), offline access and push notification all for a considerable reduction in development time. But it’s the exclusive feature of web-apps that gives it the edge over native apps. PWAs rank in search. The web-apps search is dependent upon the Search Engine Optimisation you put into it. There’s no need to worry about the brand new app being buried in the App store’s graveyard. Instead of having to remind family and friends to memorise the name of the native app so they can find it in the complex landscape of the app stores, simply sharing the URL of a web-app will suffice. It’s a website, after all!
Progressive web apps are the future that Steve Jobs envisioned. But, they do have limitations. For one, the browsers themselves, Chrome, Safari, Bing, etc. are all refining the mobile experience in their respective ways and still have minimal access to hardware features, but are being granted more. Secondly, there is a restriction of devices where web apps can be downloaded, for example, Smartwatches, Smart Tv’s, Telsa’s, Digital assistants or VR/AR headsets such as the Oculus Rift.
Moving into the future, the short term view of PWAs is, they will continue to embed themselves as the norm for small- to medium-sized company’s wanting to develop an app, the efficiency and effectiveness are too good to pass up. Additionally, continued expansion, overcoming the limitations that it’s currently held back by. That said, they will not outright destroy native applications. There is always a need for a compelling customer experience until the technology of the web can catch up. However, what will happen is a more evident division between online search and app store search, and further help to improve the overall user experience online.
Long term, there is a reckoning coming. How we interact with our digital interfaces is certain to evolve in the next 10–15 years. Voice and AR will extinguish native apps and progressive web apps as we know them. The overarching goal of any app is a seamless, engaging experience. Voice commands through the use of digital assistants and preview’s of products and service via AR glasses or contacts will be the norm. “Alexa, can you show me x please.” “Thanks, please purchase and send it to my current address.” — The experience is now curating the perfect conversation to prompt a call to action.