Can Progressive Web Apps Breakthrough in 2020?

Progressive Web Apps, more commonly referred to as PWAs, are not new. In fact, I wrote an article for SAP’s The Future of Commerce touting the many benefits of PWAs and lamenting their lack of adoption in North America…IN 2017. Two years later the situation is little changed.

While PWAs have flourished in Asian markets in particular, their use by brands in the U.S. and Canada has languished. There are notable exceptions, like Starbucks and Pinterest, but those examples are few and far between. In our mobile-centric world, for brands and businesses to collectively take their digital experiences to the next level this has to change. Here’s why.

PWA’s in 84 Words

PWAs are mobile web apps that operate within a mobile web browser, e.g. Safari or Chrome. Native apps, by contrast, run on a given smartphone’s mobile operating system, iOS in the case of Apple. Where native apps are built using the App Store owner’s proprietary platform (Xcode 11 for Apple), PWAs are built using the same code stack as any other web page, namely jss, HTML5, and CSS. That’s as deep as we’ll go here, but feel free to geek out with Google.

The Benefits of PWAs

At a functional level, PWAs are on a par with native apps. Push notifications, offline mode, homescreen app icons, and more are all available with PWAs. PWAs can be built to tap into phone functionality, like the camera or microphone. They can also be designed to emulate the look and feel of native apps, creating intentional mobile experiences that are intuitive for users.

This translates into tangible benefits to organizations that offer PWAs to their customers. Because PWAs are built within the same codebase as the primary ecommerce interface, development time and costs are reduced over the lifespan of the digital experience. And as web traffic skews toward mobile channels, PWAs have been shown to directly influence results, which include an average 68% increase in mobile traffic, a 52% increase in mobile conversions, and a 43% reduction in bounce rates (source: Think with Google).

So, What Stands in the Way of PWAs?

In a word: Apple. Apple has built a very lucrative business with their App store, to the tune of $46.6 billion in 2018. Subsequently, the company has been determined to defend the tens of billions of dollars their app store generates, which has held back the technology’s adoption. Slowly, this has started to change. Apple enabled some PWA functionality in iOS 11.3 and has continued to slowly add additional support, in drip-drip fashion, with each subsequent release. While PWA functionality within iOS is still not on a par with Android, it’s not the complete roadblock it once was, so there’s hope the two dominant mobile operating systems will reach parity in the not too distant future.

For brands considering investing in PWAs, It’s worth noting that while iPhones seem ubiquitous among those in the tech space, it’s not the dominant mobile OS in the market. As of Q3 2019, the iPhone commands a 42% of the U.S. market and a 22% share of the global market. That’s sizable, but far from a majority. Globally, three out of every four smartphone users are on an Android-powered device. That’s a pretty compelling data point to consider when building a digital roadmap.

That said, there’s no law against a business having both a native app and a PWA experience. For consumer brands, that may be a viable strategy. Take Starbucks for example. Obviously cost and governance issues come into play, but consumer-focused companies need to be where their customers are. For B2B businesses, the need for native apps is far less clear.

B2B and PWAs

B2B companies are not reliant on the App Store for discovery and monetization. They largely cater to known customer bases, and have positioned apps as enablement tools for existing customers, rather than growth levers. Driving app adoption requires costly, ongoing marketing campaigns to generate downloads. Keeping that app top-of-mind among customers to spur repeat usage is an entirely separate challenge.

PWAs, on the other hand, enable B2B companies to present mobile as part of a unified digital experience. The same URLs that bring a customer to a brand’s desktop site, launch the PWA in mobile contexts. This, in many cases, may eliminate the need for separate native apps.

B2B companies are historically risk averse and cautious about adopting new technologies, but it will take only a couple of courageous brands to swing sentiment, and eventually investment, toward PWAs. The upside of simplifying the tech ecosystem and presenting app-like functionality within the owned mobile commerce channel is too big to ignore.

So, Do PWAs Break Out in 2020?

The technology “hype machine” is often 3-5 years ahead of actual commercialization and mainstream adoption. (See: delivery drones, 3D printing, Virtual Reality, etc.) At least as the North American market is concerned, this has been the case with PWAs.

However, progressive web apps are a proven viable alternative to native apps, barriers to their use are coming down, and the rollout of 5G networks will only serve to improve mobile device performance. So, yes, 2020 is shaping to be a breakout year for PWAs. The big question is: who will be the first-movers that take advantage of this technology to redefine the digital commerce experience?