What Are Progressive Web Apps (PWA)? Are They The Future?

Julian Wallis
17 min read
Smartphone, sunglasses, and laptop with code on screen

As modern life continues to move faster and more of us rely on our phones for content, responsive websites alone can no longer keep up with the pace. Staying competitive now requires an agile online presence that moves as quickly as we do!

Mobile apps have become a pivotal part of our daily lives. From social media to online shopping, mobile apps provide us the convenience of accessing information and services on the go. However, with the ever-increasing number of apps available, it has become challenging to keep up with the storage and performance requirements of native apps. This is where Progressive Web Apps (PWA) come in. The rise of PWAs has opened the floor for a new generation of web applications that offer a seamless user experience across all devices.

In this article, we cover PWAs in-depth, from their definition to their advantages and disadvantages, and comparison with Native Apps. If you’ve always wanted to learn more about progressive web applications, then you’re at the right place. So, sit back, relax and enjoy this learning experience!

What Are Progressive Web Apps? 📱

So, you plan to create an app to help your business level up and provide fantastic value to your customers. That’s great, but app development, as we all know, is a tricky process. This is because there’s a big decision you’ll have to make right off the bat – build a Web app or a Native app?

If we look closely at web apps, they are easier to access, share and use as they don’t need to install on your device. They also have a far wider reach as they are multi-platform and work across various operating systems.

Native Apps, on the other hand, are specifically built for your device, meaning they’ll perform better and make full use of your hardware’s capabilities. While it’s up for debate, many would argue that native apps provide an overall better user experience than web apps.

So, how to decide right? Both are great, and you wouldn’t go amiss with either, but what if I told you there is a third type of app that combines the best of both worlds? Enter progressive web apps!

💬 Definition Of Progressive Web Applications

A progressive web application is developed to live on the web whilst providing native app-like capabilities and functionality. This means that despite being a web app, you’ll get native features such as push notifications and offline mode operation. They can also be installed if you’d like to do so. In essence, they are web applications that offer users the same features and functionality as native apps without needing installation.

If you think that PWAs sound nothing more than an “installable website”, then think again because there is so much more to progressive web apps than just that.

PWAs are built using modern web technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and can be accessed through any modern web browser. A progressive web app provides users with the experience of a native app despite being just a web application.

By the way, did you know that a progressive web app will work on desktop devices also? It’s a relatively low-code app development solution as it provides you with a single code base, the most extensive web reach, and engaging native app features. 

⚙️ Main Components Of A Progressive Web App

There are typically two fundamental components in a PWA. 

  1. The Manifest: A JSON file that will house everything about the visual interface of the app – icons, background colour, name, images, you name it.
  2. The Service Worker: A JavaScript file that works with your browser to create an operation layer between your app and the network. This layer facilitates app functionalities such as push notifications, fast loading, caching and background synchronisation.

Progressive web applications use a service worker to cache app data and provide offline access. Service workers are JavaScript files that run in the background and act as a proxy between the browser and the server. Service workers intercept network requests and can store responses in the browser’s cache for later use, allowing for offline use.

💁 Core Characteristics Of PWAs

What makes a web app progressive? It must fulfil several requirements before it can embrace its moniker fully. Here are some of the core characteristics that progressive web applications need to have.

  • Reliability: First, PWAs have to be reliable. They should load instantly, perform seamlessly and never let users run into the dreaded “Can’t Open the Page” or “Can’t Connect” page, i.e. remain usable even without a stable network connection.
  • Capable: Web apps have come a long way. For instance, you can now build a super-local video chatting app incorporating WebRTC, geolocation, and push notifications. The possibilities are endless when you factor modern APIs and WebAssembly into the equation. Progressive web applications build on this potential to expand what can be achieved with web-based applications.
  • Fast: Speed is the name of the app game. PWAs should be fast and respond to user interactions precisely and quickly. 
  • Installable: While PWAs can run without installation, installing them will allow the user to run them in a standalone environment as opposed to the web browser. Installed PWAs should be accessible from the home screen, dock, taskbar, etc. 
  • Engaging: Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the app should be engaging and feel like an actual app instead of a website.

🕹️ Important Features Of PWAs

PWAs offer several features that make them stand out from other web apps. As mentioned earlier, you’re getting a web app with native elements. What are some of these features? Let’s find out!

  • Offline Access: PWAs can work offline, allowing users to access the app even when not connected to the internet. This is made possible by the service worker, which caches app data for offline use. We’ll discuss more on this later.
  • Fast Loading Speeds: PWAs are designed to load quickly, even on slow networks. This is achieved using modern web technologies such as JavaScript frameworks and web components.
  • Push Notifications: PWAs, unlike regular web applications, can send push notifications to users, even when the app is not open. This allows businesses to engage with their customers in real time.
  • Cross-Platform Compatibility: PWAs can be accessed on any device that has a web browser, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. This makes them more accessible than native apps designed exclusively for specific platforms and devices.
Woman using progressive web apps

At the end of the day, PWAs are essentially a subtle variation of web applications. By including service workers and the manifest, a standard web app becomes much more potent, reliable, installable and capable. So, to summarise, you’ll be building on the capabilities of a web application and incorporating progressive enhancements to make it a progressive web application.

Advantages Of PWAs 🎯

📳 Native-Like Feel

A big advantage of progressive web applications is their ability to provide a native app-like experience without users needing to download and install anything. This makes PWAs an excellent option for businesses and organisations that want to offer a seamless mobile experience to their users without the high cost of developing native apps.

💰 Lower Development Costs

Progressive web applications are built using web technologies, which are more accessible than native app development frameworks. This makes them a more cost-effective option for businesses. How much do they cost in comparison to Native Apps? You can learn that and more from our app development cost breakdown guide.

🍎 Free From The App Store

Unlike Native apps, PWAs are accessed and shared using their web addresses as they are just websites at the end of the day. This freedom from the app store importantly means that you won’t have to worry about Apple or Google taking away 30% off your purchases. You also don’t have to go through their authentication and review processes and can distribute your service whenever and wherever you want.

🙋 Better User Experience

PWAs provide users with a seamless experience similar to a native app. They also offer features such as push notifications and fast loading speeds, which improve user engagement.

👓 Increased Accessibility

PWAs can be accessed on any device with a web browser, making them more accessible than native apps. This also makes them a more convenient option for users who do not want to download an app.

📵 Offline Capabilities

A key benefit of a progressive web app is its ability to provide a fast and reliable user experience, even in areas with poor internet connectivity. This is achieved through service workers, which allow it to load instantly and continue to function even when the user is offline. This not only enhances the user experience but also reduces the bounce rate and increases user engagement.

🔎 Search Engine Friendly

Additionally, progressive web applications are highly discoverable thanks to their ability to be indexed by search engines. This means that businesses can leverage the power of search engine optimisation (SEO) to increase their visibility and attract more users to their web apps.

🔏 Super Secure & Compatible

PWAs are also highly secure, thanks to their use of HTTPS, which encrypts all data transmitted between the web server and the user’s device. This makes them a safer option for users, particularly those concerned about their personal information’s security.

Regarding compatibility, PWAs work seamlessly across all devices, including desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. This essentially means that businesses can reach a larger audience and provide a consistent user experience across all devices.

Progressive Web App Challenges 🚧

Woman developer stressed due to progressive web app limitations

💡 Relatively Modern Technology

While PWAs will provide an almost app-like experience on your mobile despite being a web app, it is essential to note that this is a relatively new technology. They rely on contemporary emerging technologies meaning support is still not widely available in all browsers. But hopefully, as time goes on, this problem should fade away.

In-App Features

While PWAs will provide most, if not all, of the in-app features in a Native app, it will always be easier to access these features on the platform-specific application. Think in terms of in-app purchases, for example. It’s so much easier to make those impulse buys on a mobile app because people would’ve already set up their waller account, and thus, it becomes a matter of mere taps.

😕 Limited Functionality

PWAs may not be able to provide all the features that a native app can offer, such as access to device hardware and sensors. PWAs run on browsers, so it makes sense that they won’t have access to the same level of hardware features like Native apps would.

💻 Browser Compatibility

PWAs may not work correctly on all web browsers, limiting their accessibility. For instance, if your target audience uses legacy browsers and devices that don’t support PWAs, you’ll be seriously bottlenecking the traffic potential of your app.

Furthermore, if you want your app to work on older devices and operating systems, then PWAs may not be your best option. PWAs are meant to work on modern technologies and, thus, will perform poorly, if at all, in older systems which could cause poor customer experiences and loss of trust in the brand.

Not As Suitable For Long-Duration Use

It is important to note that PWAs aren’t built specifically for a mobile environment, unlike Native apps. So, your device will have to use more power to understand and launch the code of a PWA, leading to higher consumption of the device’s energy.

What Does The Future Hold For PWAs? 🔮

So, are PWAs the future of web applications? It certainly seems that way. A progressive web app bridges the gap between native and web applications incredibly well – providing a solid compromise between the two. With their ability to provide a fast, reliable, and engaging user experience and their compatibility and discoverability, PWAs offer a compelling alternative to traditional web applications and native apps.

Safe to say, the future of progressive web apps looks promising. As more businesses realise the potential of PWAs, we can anticipate an increase in their adoption. Some experts predict that they could eventually replace native apps altogether.

Amazingly the stats back these claims! Over the last few years, businesses that have launched progressive web apps have experienced exceptional results. For instance, Twitter, after the introduction of Twitter Lite, a PWA, saw an increase in pages visited per session by 65%. While the number of Tweets rose by a whopping 75%, and the impressive bounce rate dropped by 20%. All of this was achieved whilst the overall size of the app was reduced by 97%. Hulu also experienced similarly positive results after switching their desktop app to a progressive web app, as customers’ return visits rose by over 25%.

PWA Vs Native App Vs Hybrid App 🆚

⌨️ Progressive Web Apps Vs Native Apps

Native apps are mobile applications developed specifically for a single platform, such as iOS or Android. Native apps offer several advantages, including access to device hardware and sensors, but require more development time and resources. Unlike PWAs, native apps are developed using specific frameworks such as React Native or Flutter and in the platform’s programming language, whether that’s Objective-C and Swift in iOS or Java in Android. Native Apps are published and downloaded from the platform’s resident app store and will be installed on the device’s home screen.

PWAs, on the other hand, are built using web development frameworks, accessed via a web link, and unavailable from a platform-specific app store. 

Man on a smartphone

These platform-specific applications are renowned for being rich, reliable and smooth to use. They’ll always be there in your home screen, docks or taskbar for easier accessibility, and some will work regardless of network connectivity. They’ll read and write files from your local storage system, access your hardware’s capabilities, such as camera, Bluetooth, and USB ports, and even interact with your device’s stored data, such as your contacts or calendar events. In many ways than one, they will almost become an extension of your device.

⌨️ Progressive Web Apps Vs Hybrid Apps

Hybrid apps are mobile applications developed using web technologies and wrapped in a native shell. Hybrid apps offer some advantages over both web and native apps, but they can also suffer from performance issues. Like PWAs, a single code base of hybrid apps will allow you to reach any device across the world. This might beg the question, how are progressive web apps different from hybrid apps? 

Hybrid apps are called so because they are created using modern web development technologies (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript). Add to that, with a hybrid app, you’ll have access to different platforms that you wouldn’t have with a browser. PWAs, however, are basically websites that provide app-like capabilities and will load instantly regardless of internet connectivity. They are designed to be multi-platform yet will only provide platform-specific features that the browser can access.

🤔 Which Is Best?

So, by now, you might be asking which is better out of these three? Let’s simplify the comparison and remove Hybrid apps from the equation, as they are fairly similar and comparable to PWAs.

The question now is, Progressive Web Apps or Native Apps? Another common question that most people would have is, if I’ve built a PWA, do I still need a Native application? These are both valid questions, but are they the right questions?

The thing is, both PWAs and Native applications serve their specific purposes. It isn’t a like-for-like comparison, as choosing one over the other depends entirely on your situation. There will be cases where a PWA would make the most sense over a native app and vice-versa. Read on to learn when a progressive web app would be best to build.

When To Build A Progressive Web App 🕵

Realistically, PWAs are still not ready to completely replace Native apps. And while there are unconventional routes to make a PWA available in the app store, such as using Google’s Bubblewrap feature, it remains a path very few developers take.

On the flip side, there aren’t many scenarios, particularly in eCommerce, where exclusively relying on a native app to derive all of your digital interactions with your customers would make sense. This is especially true when you consider the fact that native apps are nowhere near as discoverable as PWAs. The inability of native apps to be indexed by search engines severely bottlenecks the discoverability of native apps.

If you are just starting or have a basic eCommerce website, you should consider replacing the website with a PWA. Doing so would help you get incredible benefits, such as improved performance, user experience, and engagement.

Lastly, will PWAs drive Native apps to obsolescence? Well, not really, because Native apps will most likely always have their place. If you want to create a more profound, richer customer experience and engagement, especially when security is a concern, and utilise the device’s hardware capabilities to the fullest, then Native apps will always be your best bet.

So, in our opinion, it’s not whether you need to build a PWA or a Native app; it’s actually whether you need to build both.

If you’d still like to compare PWAs with Native and Hybrid apps, then the comparison table below will give you a high-level overview of how PWAs fare against the other two.

ParameterNative AppsHybrid AppsProgressive Web Apps
Development TimeHighMediumLow
Hardware AccessGreatGoodLimited
Offline AccessLimitedLimitedExcellent
Fast LoadingYesYesYes

Notable Use Cases Of PWAs 👀

🐤 Twitter Lite

Twitter Lite is a relatively recent example of a progressive web app done right. The application was launched in 2017, designed to provide users with a fast and lightweight experience, even on slow networks. Twitter Lite offers several features, including push notifications, offline access, and the ability to add the app to the user’s home screen. Twitter Lite has been successful in markets where internet connectivity is limited or expensive.


Starbucks has also adopted progressive web apps for its mobile ordering system. The app allows users to order and pay for their drinks in advance, saving time and reducing wait times at the store. The PWA enables Starbucks to send push notifications to users and alert them when their order is ready.

🛍️ Alibaba

Alibaba has also leveraged progressive web apps for its online marketplace. The PWA provides users a fast and seamless experience, allowing them to browse and purchase products without downloading an app. The Alibaba PWA, like the other examples we’ve discussed, provides native-ish features such as offline access and push notifications, thereby improving overall user engagement.

Takeaways: Progressive Web Applications 📋

Progressive web apps offer a cost-effective and user-friendly alternative to native apps. They offer several advantages, including fast loading speeds, offline access, and cross-platform compatibility. While they may not be suitable for all use cases, PWAs have gained popularity among companies striving to provide customers with a seamless and engaging experience.

As internet connectivity continues to improve, we are bound to witness an increasing trend in adopting progressive web apps. While they may not wholly replace native apps, PWAs offer a great middle-ground between web and native apps, providing businesses with a viable workaround.

In essence, if you are looking for a way to provide your users with a seamless mobile experience while improving your website’s discoverability and security, then PWAs are worth considering. With their many benefits and advantages, they will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in future web applications.

To take advantage of PWAs’ accelerated development cycles and reduced costs associated with maintenance, businesses need to move towards a more comprehensive approach to building experiences across platforms. If you’re wondering how your business can join the PWA revolution, why not book a discovery call with us today? We look forward to helping you create an impactful digital presence that increases engagement while minimising maintenance costs.

Published On

March 31, 2023