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Progressive Web Apps: why they’re revolutionising the user experience

(Image credit: Image Credit: Alok Sharma / Pexels)

By now, you’ve probably heard that Progressive Web Apps (PWA) are the next big thing. Experts believe that they’ll push the mobile web forward, bring parity to web and native apps and provide mobile specific capabilities to web users. 

So what are Progressive Web Apps, exactly? 

Simply put, Progressive Web Apps are installable and live on the user's home screen, without the need for an app store. They promise to be more reliable; able to load even in uncertain network conditions. They’re fast too, and they’re engaging. They feel like a native app on the device, delivering immersive user experience and helping to provide a consistent user experience - regardless of the platform. 

The user benefits of PWA are twofold; they offer offline access and offer the ability to incorporate 1st gen of on-board sensor access for a richer experience. Users can work with a Progressive App even when they’re offline. The new caching mechanism that delivers the offline experience is a big step forward from yesterday’s hero - Responsive Web Design, which only works when you’re connected to the Internet. It makes the app faster and more available. PWAs can also use device features like cameras, data storage, GPS and motion sensors, push notifications and more. These new capabilities pave the way for delivering great AR and VR experiences, right on the web. And, although it should be noted that PWAs are a bit behind native apps here, providing only basic mobile capabilities, the gap is closing quickly, and PWAs are for many, pretty compelling. 

For developers; the benefits are clear too. Progressive Apps have one common source code base to develop for all platforms: web, Android and iOS - making them easy to maintain and fix whilst also supporting the new capabilities that enable a much richer user experience beyond traditional responsive web sites. Today, PWAs are fully supported by Chrome and Opera, and in addition, Firefox supports nearly all of their features and Microsoft Edge too. The Samsung Internet browser has been making great strides this past year and has shown a strong commitment to Progressive Web Apps, as demonstrated by Samsung’s leadership in some of the key standardization work. And Apple has finally jumped on the mobile web train toon: service workers, a key component for supporting progressive web apps, are available in Safari 11.1 for iOS 11.3 and macOS 10.13.4. 

And, as we note that Google is the organisation behind PWA, this reflects a growing trend where Internet browser giants are investing more heavily in web design and development. Industry heavyweights like Google, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft have shown that they’re committed to helping facilitate the move from .mob and .com websites to a rich, cross-platform experience (although it should be noted that Apple and its Safari browser is a little behind the curve from a support perspective). They’re producing tools which are benefitting developers and testers - from accessibility testing to security analysis tools, all built into the browser. Of course, it’s in their interests to do this - after all, the more people develop for their sites, the more people use them - but it does pave the way for a richer and more progressive approach to web design and development, which benefits everyone. 

PWAs aren’t bulletproof or perfect yet - but represent a growing technology which is set to significantly move the industry - for designers and developers and the businesses they work for - and for consumers too. And so, it’s important that development teams know how, and when, to best leverage them. 

Do I need specific skills to develop or test for Progressive Apps? 

With Google - the masters of simplicity - behind the development; it’s perhaps no surprise that PWA is relatively easy to adopt. So, developers don’t need to gain new skills, but rather learn new APIs and see how they can be leveraged by their websites. PWA apps leverage two main architectural features for developers to use; Service Workers (which give developers the ability to manually manage the caching of assets and control the experience when there is no network connectivity) and Web App Manifest (the file within the PWA that describe the app, provide metadata specific to the app like icons, splash screens, and more) - and these present significant new opportunities for developers. 

For testers, PWAs are still JavaScript-based apps, so tools like Selenium and Appium will continue to work effectively. However, cross browser testing on desktop and mobile platforms is getting harder and PWA introduces a greater level of complexity than RWD. As with any development of this ilk, new tests (manual and automated) need to be developed, executed, and fit into the overall pipeline. With RWD, the primary challenge was the visual changes driven by form factor. PWA introduces additional complexities due to more unique mobile-specific capabilities, such as no network operation, sensors-based functionality (location, camera for AR/VR, and more) and cross-device functionality as well as dependency on different test frameworks like Selenium, Appium. There may also be a need to instrument the mobile side of the PWA to better interact with the UI components of the app on the devices. Testers must be aware of what PWAs can access and how to keep quality assurance high at the top of their priority list. 

The death of Responsive Web Design? 

For many developers though, this is yet another big disruption to an already transient market. As is the case with technology, things move quickly and as many are just getting to grips with Responsive Web Design (RWD). 

RWD ensures that the functionality, performance and visual layout of websites are consistent across all digital platforms and various user conditions - but presented challenges to DevOps. Many found that, when you factor in the continuous testing of new features, and guaranteeing your website is working optimally on all browsers, devices, OSes and carrier networks, RWD can be daunting.    

So, is PWA just a new headache for web development teams - as they think about new baselines for app responsiveness, assuring the offline experience, interactions with on board sensors (camera, mic, etc.) - and more?   

Forward looking developers will look to overcome the challenges this kind of innovation brings and use PWA as an opportunity to deliver a better user experience. If you’re a developer just starting to move from a .com or a .mob site to a cross platform web environment, then PWA is a compelling option. It is new. It’s ramping up - and it’s likely to be here to stay. Web developers, should base any plan for change around an appropriate product or business milestone such as a next big web site release or a complete rebrand; making sure that a move to PWA makes sense, and isn’t just a jump on the latest and greatest bandwagon. 

So, PWA is undoubtedly the next chapter in web development, and the possibilities for businesses are extensive. For example, the powerful development will make it simpler for retailers to develop websites that are lightning fast - magnitudes faster than responsive mobile web experiences. It is also likely to increase usage and present new opportunities for businesses to better engage customers. Developers need to ensure that they’re geared up for the shift, and testers need to prepare to deliver an even more comprehensive programme for continuous testing across multiple platforms.     

Eran Kinsbruner, Lead Technical Evangelist at Perfecto (opens in new tab) 

Image Credit:  Alok Sharma / Pexels

Eran Kinsbruner is the lead technical evangelist at Perfecto and the author of the digital quality handbook. He is a software engineering professional with nearly 20 years of experience at companies such as Matrix, Qulicke & Soffa, Sun Microsystems, General Electric, Texas Instruments and NeuStar. He holds various industry certifications such as ISTQB, CMMI, and others. Eran is a recognized mobile testing influencer and thought leader. He is also a patent holding inventor (test exclusion automated mechanism for mobile J2ME testing), public speaker, researcher, and blogger.