The death of the packaged Chrome OS app felt like quite the blow back in August of 2016. Since that time, Chrome Apps have gone away on all platforms except Chrome OS, but the writing is on the wall. Chrome-specific apps look like they are on their way out in favor of a more cross-platform-friendly alternative: Progressive Web Apps.
First, a definition. Progressive Web Apps (PWAs from this point forward) are defined by Google as:
…experiences that combine the best of the web and the best of apps. They are useful to users from the very first visit in a browser tab, no install required. As the user progressively builds a relationship with the app over time, it becomes more and more powerful. It loads quickly, even on flaky networks, sends relevant push notifications, has an icon on the home screen, and loads as a top-level, full-screen experience.
While we’re at it, Google also gives some clear guidelines on what a PWA should deliver.
A Progressive Web App is:
- Progressive – Works for every user, regardless of browser choice because it’s built with progressive enhancement as a core tenet.
- Responsive – Fits any form factor: desktop, mobile, tablet, or whatever is next.
- Connectivity independent – Enhanced with service workers to work offline or on low-quality networks.
- App-like – Feels like an app, because the app shell model separates the application functionality from application content .
- Fresh – Always up-to-date thanks to the service worker update process.
- Safe – Served via HTTPS to prevent snooping and to ensure content hasn’t been tampered with.
- Discoverable – Is identifiable as an “application” thanks to W3C manifest and service worker registrationscope, allowing search engines to find it.
- Re-engageable – Makes re-engagement easy through features like push notifications.
- Installable – Allows users to add apps they find most useful to their home screen without the hassle of an app store.
- Linkable – Easily share the application via URL, does not require complex installation.
Now that you have a rough idea of what we’re talking about here, how about a few examples of these? Some of the websites you use on a daily basis can all be qualified as PWAs. Google Maps? Google Pay? Those are two quick “websites” that, off the top of my head, qualify as PWAs once added to my Chromebook. The process for getting these PWAs “installed” is a little odd, and we’re going to talk about that. I just wanted to give a quick once-over so those of you not familiar with this whole PWA concept could get up to speed.
Development and Current State of Things
Before we can really talk about where Google is going, we need to talk about where we are currently. As I showed above, there are plenty of websites you currently use that are technically PWAs. As a matter of fact, there’s a cool site called PWA Rocks that collects great PWAs around the web. They don’t cover them all, obviously, and that is part of the overall problem with the current state of affairs.
Discovery and installation are sorely lacking.
We’ve talked about windowing apps around here before, so if you are interested in getting a PWA behaving more like an installed app, you can head over to this article and follow those steps. It is easy and once you’ve done it, you have a more app-like experience with an icon in your app drawer and/or pinned to your shelf as well. Though simple, this process is not clear at all for most users and, because of this, isn’t utilized very often.
So, that’s problem #1. Even with great apps available, most people use them like websites and psychologically dismiss them as just websites. The second problem here is centralized discovery. Perhaps the PWA’s greatest strength is also a massive weakness.
Think about this: now that web technologies have become adept enough to deliver full-fledged services over the open web (Apple, Microsoft, Google and Mozilla are all on board with these, BTW), users aren’t forced to worry about specific platforms to leverage these apps. Prefer a Mac over a Windows laptop? You can leverage the Google Maps PWA all the same. No app store, no walled gardens, no locked ecosystems.
While that sounds fantastic, it is flawed in a day and age where people are comforted by app stores. Be it Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store, or Amazon’s App Store, people like this method of discovery and installation. Since Apple introduced the idea of apps and the App Store (they wanted to use web-based apps initially) over a decade ago, everyone has followed suit and we now understand that app installs are the way we interact with services and businesses on our devices.
PWAs do this same thing, but for now you can’t get them in a store per se. There’s no definitive location for downloading, installing or even finding them. And that uncertainty, driven by the platform’s great strength, is currently a defining weakness.
What We’re Seeing
Right now, Microsoft is the only one fully committed to solving problem #2. Many sources have documented Microsoft’s intent to include PWAs into the Microsoft Store with a Windows 10 update slated for spring of 2018. Apple and Mozilla are also making moves, but no one else has declared how PWAs will be distributed to users apart from Microsoft.
We fully expect Google to do one of two things here. Scenario one would place PWAs in the Google Play Store. After all, you can add any site to your home screen in Android currently, so having that happen through the Play Store wouldn’t be a big stretch on phones or Chromebooks.
A second possibility would be a resurrection of the Chrome Web Store, rebranded and focused on PWAs and Chrome Extensions. If Google can make PWA’s work in Google Play, I see that as a much more likely scenario given all the work done to bring Android and Chrome OS together through the mutual use of Google Play.
This would solve both of the above-mentioned problems as well, giving users a clear way to install PWAs and an easy way to find and discover them.
We don’t have anything definitive yet on the Play Store vs. Web Store right now, but we do have some very interesting changes coming to Chrome OS’ handling of PWA’s from a UI standpoint. Ostensibly, these changes would reflect in Windows, MacOS and Linux distros as well. Check out the pics below.
What we’re seeing here, via this commit, is how the missing pieces of UI are being added in for PWAs. Again, PWAs are still being served over the web, so certain things will still be expected of them. The ability to snag the current URL, sharing options, print buttons, zooming and other things that are part of the 3-dot menu when browsing websites are expected actions and need ways to be handled. Never mind simple things like password storage and delivery or SSL notifications.
On the web, PWA or not, these things need an access point, and Google is adding all that in.
Keep in mind Chrome has been doing windowed versions of websites for many years at this point, and nothing has changed over that course of time. The way you pinned a site, told it to open in a window, and interacted with the end result has been a stable, unchanged area for Chromebook users as long as I can remember.
And now it’s getting tons of attention.
Just a quick glance at the Chromium Repositories after searching PWA shows that there is a ton of ongoing work and most of it is fairly recent. Google is diving in here, and I’d imagine the end result will be more than just a contextual menu in windowed websites.
My bet? We’ll see A LOT of info at Google I/O this year pertaining to PWAs: where they can be discovered (Google Play?), how to make the install process much simpler, how users will interact with them, and how security issues (if any) will be mitigated.
As we see development move forward, we’re keeping a close eye on all these developments. After all, Chrome OS is a web-based platform. Sure, Android Apps have been a great add-on and will continue to deliver great app experiences as the platform grows on Chromebooks. PWAs could be the future of app delivery across the board, though.
The idea of web apps as the standard has been bounced around forever and there have just been too many roadblocks. Web technologies weren’t up to the task, discovery was difficult, and no one was really behind the idea.
That all looks to be changing, and the internet, consumers, developers, and businesses will all be better for it. This future is an exciting one, indeed!