What is a Progressive Web App?

App development can be a maddening process.

If you’re going to develop an app, you’re faced with a tidal wave of tough choices.

Should you design an iOS app, Android app, or both? Which one first? How often will you make updates? How will you prevent your app from becoming obsolete as technology changes?

Today’s app development environment is full of these kinds of difficult decisions.

But thankfully, there’s a new solution that’s quickly emerging as an alternative.

With it, you can develop an app that works for iOS and Android, update quickly and easily, and guarantee it will keep working as technology continues to change.

That miracle of technology is known as a Progressive Web App, or PWA. And it’s taking the world of app development by storm.

If you’ve wanted your app to work on every device, everywhere, every time, PWAs need to be your top priority.

In this article, you’ll learn what PWAs are, how they can solve your app development issues, and how to get started building one today.

Let’s jump in!

What are Progressive Web Apps?

On the surface, the term Progressive Web App might just come off as tech jargon (originally coined by Alex Russell and Frances Berriman), but PWAs are actually the next step in user-friendly app experiences that every app developer should carefully explore.

Many users are permanently stuck on apps and rely on them for all their functions, while others prefer to make use of traditional websites. PWAs are a seamless bridge between those two needs.

PWAs combine the look and feel of an app with the ease of programming of a website. These cutting edge apps make it easy for your users to access your content (essentially on a full-screen web page), providing a higher quality experience and happier users.

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What’s in it for you? Well, happy users are engaged users, and engaged users increase your revenue. Even better, PWAs have a direct link to increased engagement and conversions, as we’ll see later.

Plus, you’ll get a broader reach to your target audience. Not every web user is interested in downloading an app. At the same time, they might still be interested in taking advantage of the features of your app.

By offering your app as a PWA, you can ensure that you are still available to this group of people.

At its heart, a PWA is a website that makes use of new technology to act like a traditional mobile app.

This allows PWAs to work across all different types of devices and all different types of browsers. That means you can design one app that works beautifully for Apple, Android, and Windows devices.

The huge portability and accessibility between devices makes PWAs the future of mobile apps. While we of course can’t know for certain what the future of app development holds, it’s a likely bet that PWAs will start to dominate the market.

Some developers are even predicting that the native app is doomed to die, with PWAs completely taking over the app development world in the coming years.

While we’re on the topic, let’s take a closer look at exactly how PWAs differ from native apps.

How Are PWAs Different Than Native Apps?

First, let’s start off with a simple explanation of the difference.

A native app is a self-contained program that lives on a smartphone. It works like a program you run on your computer, like Microsoft Word or a media playing app.

A PWA is essentially websites that display like mobile apps. They’re more like Google Docs or Netflix, because they can perform the same functions as native programs, but through the internet browser.

But PWAs are different than most websites and native apps. There are a few key differences you need to understand to differentiate between them.

1. Progressive

The biggest selling point of PWAs is that they don’t have the restrictions of traditional apps, namely the restricted ability to only work with one platform. This means that PWAs must be as progressive as possible and work on as many platforms as possible.

They should be able to work with any browser that is owned by the user. A PWA can’t really be called a PWA if it is unable to function with some browsers or operating systems.

Progressive enhancement is one of the key factors that set PWAs apart from traditional apps and before you offer your app in that format, you should ensure that it truly can work with every browser type available on the market. Check to see if the API is compatible.

2. Responsive

It’s a well-known fact that internet users access the internet from mobile phones, tablets, desktops, laptops, and a variety of other devices.

As a PWA is offered to the public, all these must be taken into consideration. It is foolhardy to assume that everyone that uses your PWA will be doing so from a desktop.

In other words, your PWA must be able to function on mobile, tablets and so on as well as on a full-scale desktop. This type of design–where a website’s design adjusts to meet the requirements of the device being used–is known as responsive design.

google progressive web apps computer screens

Responsive design like this is critical to making PWAs progressive and accessible on a variety of devices.

A situation where the user tries to make use of your PWA on mobile and find themselves unable to will be not only frustrating but discouraging as well.

3. Connectivity independent

It’s common knowledge that you can’t visit a website if the internet is down. But most native apps allow you to use them despite limited or no connectivity.

A PWA, while running on an internet browser (leveraging an API), allows users to interact with the app independent of the connection.

This is done by caching the app data ahead of time. This caching is made possible by the use of what’s known as a service worker. The service worker offers a programmatic way to cache resources.

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Not every user is blessed with a spectacular internet connection and even if they are, the internet connection won’t always be as strong.

If you are offering a PWA to the public, then it’s imperative that it has the sort of functionality that can operate even when connectivity is low.

Beyond this, your PWA should also be able to work offline. In the past, it would have been an amazing feature for a website to work without a connection, but today, it is no longer a bonus. It’s a requirement.

4. App-Like

As much as a PWA goes beyond the limits of a traditional app, it is important to note that they must still maintain an app-like structure.

This is one of the biggest differences between a PWA and a website. Many websites have a few simple pages that contain static pages like contact info, blog articles, and sales pages.

To be considered a PWA, a website needs to include interactive features that engage the user. This page can then be added to the homescreen of a device and users can interact with the app as though it were a native app.

progressive web apps

This means that they must still give the functionality of an app. Notification and features should run seamlessly in the background until they are needed by the user.

The functions must be easily accessible for the user and if it is a function that is continuously in use (say, a font-changing app), it should run without any interference.

The functionality of a PWA is central to its value.

Future-proof Technology

No matter what happens in mobile app technology, PWAs will always be the cutting edge. As the web and apps converge, the only safe place to be is with a PWA.

The history of this convergence is easy to find. When mobile devices were introduced, they were completely separate from desktop and laptops.

Gradually, however, these two “different” technologies have grown closer and blended together.

With tablets that double as laptops, smartphones the screen sizes of tablets, and design standards that allow developers to create websites that fit any size screen, the future will be one of blurry lines between technology.

The same applies to the world of native apps. In the battle between native applications and web apps, the winner is quickly becoming–both.

Rather than constantly rebuilding your app from scratch with each new version of software that’s released, you can save time with a PWA. Web developers can build a PWA using Javascript. These apps also use web technologies like CSS, JSON, web app manifests, and network requests.  It’s the only app that can be quickly adapted to fit the constantly changing world of mobile development.

Advantages of Progressive Web Apps

If you’re considering developing a PWA, you need to understand the benefits behind doing so. There are a lot of ways in which a PWA is better than a native application.

Here are a few ways in which you can use a PWA for areas in which a native app simply can’t compete.

Access Anywhere

Since PWAs are based on HTML leverage web technologies, they rapidly load on any operating system, and on any device.

Aside from the easy access and fast page loads, These apps do come with some drawbacks. The often need to be regularly upgraded, might be too large to install, or might not be compatible with certain devices. There’s also the question of whether the app is available for certain devices below a certain range.

Needless to say, apps can have a number of factors that make them difficult to install and use, This is where the benefits of PWAs are very obvious.

Because the app is offered in form of an interactive website, it is available to practically everyone with internet access and a modern browser (Safari, Google Chrome, etc.).

It doesn’t need to be downloaded and thus, is instantly compatible and there is no fear of the user not having enough storage space.

All programs with functionality settings need to be upgraded from time to time. PWAs, however, have the added benefit of not needing to be upgraded by the user. If a newer version comes out, they have instant access to it by merely visiting the website.

For the app developer, it is also easier to gauge the popularity of the app since it comes in a web format. People download and forget to use apps all the time, but with a PWA, daily usage is easier to track and record.

PWAs also have the ability to work offline. These days, more and more web applications are enabling offline functionality and your PWA must also be able to do this.

This is done by caching app beforehand so that it can be displayed when the user isn’t connected to the internet.


There is also the option of displaying offline messages for users. Either way, there needs to be proper provision made for offline use of the PWA.

Promotion with SEO

Search engine optimization best practices promote PWAs, making it easier for users to find them through Google or other search engines.

Many internet users are probably searching for the type of features that your PWA offers and the most common way that they search for these is by way of search engines.

That is why it is important for search engines to recognize your URL as an application.

This is thanks to W3C manifests and service worker registration scopes. These allow search engines to recognize your URL as an application and list is as such.

When potential users are then searching for features similar to your own, your PWA will be more visible and thus more discoverable to them.

Of the most effective ways to get your web app (or any other thing on the internet) seen is to have it well-listed on Google search results.

PWAs are recognized as applications by Google and are thus very search engine friendly.

Having your web application offered as PWA puts you at the forefront and makes you more likely to be seen by those looking for the functions you offer.

There’s an added benefit that can help your search engine rankings as well. The only thing modern internet users love more than making use of various apps with various exciting features is sharing these discoveries with others.

In the case of apps, if a user wanted to share it with another person, they would need to share a link to an app store where the new user would have to go through the process of downloading and installing.

This opens another can of worms entirely. The new user might not have enough memory space on their device or the app might be incompatible with their device altogether.

With PWAs, sharing is as easy as sending a URL to a potential new user. There is no installation or downloading involved. With that said, some PWAs are installable on a user’s home screen (more on this shortly).

Easy Updates

Skip the middleman of needing approval by multiple operating systems and push new versions of your app directly to your users.

App updates are a fact of Internet use. New features are developed every day and bugs and glitches are removed with easy release. App updates are also one of the most hated aspects of app use.

It’s a running joke that most internet users will put off updating their apps until the app can no longer function.

Following in the pattern of taking any stress of use of the app user, PWAs have the added benefit of pushing updates by the developers themselves and not the users.

Because the PWA isn’t downloaded per se, all new updates and features can be added remotely by the development team.

Users will only notice new and improved features but don’t have to approve updates themselves.

Direct Deployment

For traditional apps, a user will need to take a number of steps to download the app. First he or she will need to find it in the app store, authorize the installation, wait for it to download, login or set up the app, and finally begin using it.

For each of these steps, app developers can expect 20% of users to lose interest and stop the process. PWAs load directly onto a smartphone user screen without needing an app store download.

Since it’s loaded in the browser, there is no searching or installing required. This makes for a dramatic increase in the total number of app installs when using PWAs.

Depending on the type of features that your PWA offers, users might want to continuously make use of it. If that’s the case, PWAs can be added to users’ home screen and accessed without any hassle.

Why the future of mobile app is Progressive Web App

Apps typically have to be installed from an app store, which is often tedious and stressful. PWAs can be added to a homepage at the push of a button (example: “add to home screen”) and from then on become a part of the user’s frequent internet use.

This means no visiting a site every time its features are needed or downloading from an app store. PWAs are very easily accessible for the their users as this is one of their biggest benefits.

Safe and Secure

PWAs provide the familiar app experience user’s demand without sacrificing performance or security. There are even ecommerce sites using PWAs.

One of the biggest and most important topics for internet users today is safety, particularly when it comes to content being stolen, shared, or hacked.

PWAs by their very nature are able to combat this problem. PWAs are offered via HTTPS, which provides major benefits for both users and developers.

Unlike traditional native apps, which have access to the operating system of the device, a PWA is limited to the constraints of the browser. This restricts overall vulnerabilities and limits the chances of a scam app overriding a user’s security settings.

A native app is also limited to updates when the user accepts them. In contrast, a PWA can be updated on the fly and immediately used by all users accessing the app.

This allows vulnerabilities to be covered with patches quickly and efficiently, without lost time waiting for users to update the app on their device.

It’s for these reasons that some experts have said that PWAs, when properly built, may be more secure than native apps themselves.

Why Build a Progressive Web App?

A lot has been said about the benefits of PWAs for the users. However, it must be mentioned that as an app developer, a PWA is one of the most beneficial and potentially lucrative things you can invest your time and resources in.

PWAs are without a doubt going to be one of the most popular and beloved ways of functionality interaction in the coming years. Beyond that reason, there are several others that come into play when deciding whether or not to build a PWA.

Perhaps the highest profile case study of success with a PWA was with Twitter. They began work on a PWA known as Twitter Lite.

Twitter Lite

After implementation, the results spoke for themselves. With the PWA:

  • Pages per session increased 65%
  • Tweets sent increased 75%
  • Bounce rate decreased 20%
  • User data consumption decreased as much as 70%
  • Average load time decreased 30%
  • Average boot up time is under three (3) seconds

The success was so overwhelming, Twitter Lite is now the default user experience for visitors using a mobile browser. It’s all about following trends for the mobile web.

There are two specific advantages behind a PWA: speed and engagement.

How a PWA is notably faster than a native app

Progressive web applications are remarkably fast, for both the app developer and for the user. For the user, they make the process of interacting with and making use of the app easier.

For example, if the user wanted to run a text through a spell check app, or insert it into an image, they would have to first copy the text and then download the app to get that done. With a PWA, they wouldn’t need to go through as much trouble.

Opening apps and navigating around them can be tedious for a lot of users and the convenience of simply typing in a URL and getting what they need is immeasurable.

Because the apps are based in the light coding of a web browser–instead of the software-wide, detailed languages used for native apps–they load much faster and use less data.


They can also be downloaded from the browser, which eliminates friction in the downloading process.

For the app developer, PWAs enable faster and easier tracking of app usage in real time. It also means that new and improved features can be given to users as quickly as possible.

With traditional apps, users would have to upgrade, with many delaying making the upgrade for as long as possible. With PWAs, new functions aren’t dependent on the users manually upgrading but are done by the developers themselves.

How to boost engagement using a PWA

By far the biggest difference between making use of PWAs and traditional apps is the ease of engagement.

With the use of traditional apps, the experience feels like just that–using an app as a separate, individual experience that only occurs when the user chooses to utilize it.

On the other hand, PWAs don’t feel like a separate entity, but as part of the internet experience itself. Just like you can turn to any website at any moment, a PWA has much more immediate access and a lightweight feel whether the user is interacting or not.

It’s no secret that internet users have short attention spans. This means that even if a user enjoys the use of your app, they might forget about it and it might fade into the background.

This is where PWAs come in. Armed with the features of native apps, PWAs are designed to be re-engageable. The primary method for re-engagement is enabling push notifications, which boost engagement by as much as 278%.

progressive web app push engagement

Push notifications regularly update the user on new features and updates about the PWA. This, in turn, means that they are constantly reminded of it and are more likely to check back in and re-engage.

This increased and more natural engagement means that your app will be a constant presence in the user’s internet experience. Not only does this boost your app’s visibility, but also makes the user more likely to eventually download your app.

One of the biggest problems that app developers face is a lack of engagement on their apps. Sure, people might download it, but there is the risk of them not using it over time, regardless of how useful it is.

With a PWA, you make sure that your app becomes an essential part of your user’s daily online experience and something they can’t live without.

This, in turn, leads to more interaction with the user and there is less of a chance of them forgetting about the web application.

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If you are looking to increase conversions, a PWA is one of the best ways to do so.

The dramatic increases in engagement that a PWA can bring transfer over to sales of product, signups, and trial registrations.

The first way that this is done is through the engagement itself. The more the user engages, the more the functions of the PWA become an important part of their daily experience.

The more the user gets used to the features of the PWA, the more likely they are to visit the website and potential make purchases from it.

When internet giant AliExpress adopted a PWA, they saw a 104% increase in conversion rates.


Finally, a PWA is easier to share virally. The more the PWA is used, the more likely the user is to share the PWA with others which in turn leads to more conversions.

Unlike a typical app which has a hard-to-reach address buried within an app store, a PWA can be shared with a simple URL like any other website.

The Bottom Line on PWAs

PWAs are arguably the next step in web application interaction and functionality. They are cross-platform compatible and still provide a traditional app-like experience for users.

The technology makes the process of accessing app functions more convenient for users. Most of all, it creates a more effective channel of interaction that skyrockets user engagement.

For an app developer, it makes interacting with user easier, makes it more convenient to track app use in itself, and most of all, allows the developer to drive more conversions and interactions through the app.

Every developer should invest in PWAs as they have proven to be worth the investment, for both user and developer.

The technology is quickly becoming a dominant force in the world of app development, and the sooner you take advantage of it, the more quickly you’ll jump to the forefront in your industry.

Are you ready to get started?

Ian Blair

Ian is the CEO and Co-Founder of BuildFire. He's a visionary leader and tech-driven strategist running a team and platform that powers 10,000+ mobile apps. Ian has been building mobile apps for 10+ years. He's also an expert digital marketer responsible for millions of organic site visits and hundreds of thousands of leads.