PWA stands for “Progressive Web App” and refers to a web application that leverages both web-based and native mobile technologies to provide an app-like experience to users without requiring them to download or install an app from an app store. The reason why PWAs are so effective is that they provide the feature-rich user experience of a native mobile application without sacrificing the flexibility and cost benefits of a web application.

How do they work?

PWAs aren’t built using one specific technology. Instead, they reflect a new approach to building web applications using modern features, APIs, and patterns. On a basic level, a website must register a service worker, use HTTPS, and have a web app manifest file to be considered progressive. These three PWA requirements serve to support a variety of modern features and capabilities.

What’s the difference between a PWA and a standard web application?

At first glance, it can be difficult to tell if a web app is a PWA. In fact, how “progressive” a web application is can be evaluated on a sliding scale based on how many progressive technologies and features that application uses. Below, we’ve outlined some key hallmarks and benefits of progressive web applications.

Key Features and Benefits of Progressive Web Applications:

1. They work offline

Unlike standard web applications, PWAs are network independent, which allows them to work even when users are offline or have an unreliable network connection. On a very simplistic level, this is accomplished by using Service Workers and APIs to revisit and cache page requests and responses, thereby allowing users to browse content they previously viewed.

2. They’re Search Engine Optimized

PWAs are intended to be more discoverable and compatible with search engines. To support that goal, PWAs adhere to certain global standards and formats that make it easier to catalog, rank, and surface content in search engines. For instance, to become a PWA, a website must have HTTPS support and include a web app manifest.

In addition to providing SEO advantages, these modern technical requirements make the application more secure and enable certain progressive features like adding a website shortcut to a mobile device's Home Screen.

3. They’re installable

Unlike traditional web apps, PWAs have the ability to be installed on a device. This empowers users to access that app via an app icon and ultimately creates a more seamless and integrated user experience. When users wish to access the application, they can click the shortcut on their Home Screen rather than opening a web browser window and typing out a URL. PWAs don’t need to be installed to function. However, providing this option to users enables the app to perform and feel more like a native application, thereby reducing friction from the re-engagement process.

4. They’re linkable

Unlike native mobile applications, traditional web applications are accessible via a direct URL without requiring setup or installation. That URL structure makes it easy to encourage users to engage with specific content by linking directly to a page you’d like them to view and even anchoring to specific text. For native mobile applications, driving specific user actions within the app can require more UI development and strategic in-app communication.

5. They're responsive

As of 2023, over half of all internet traffic comes from mobile devices. As users continue to interact with and seek out content via various channels, brands have been forced to reimagine their user experience. Today’s users expect a seamless, omnichannel experience across desktop, mobile, and brick-and-mortar touchpoints. Responsive design — the ability of a web application interface to automatically adapt to a device’s layout and individual user’s behavior — is table stakes for delivering on these heightened expectations. PWAs leverage modern technologies to ensure a web application UI is flexible and responsive.

6. They provide built-in security benefits

PWAs are built using HTTPS, which encrypts data shared between the app and the server. This protocol makes it inherently more challenging for hackers to access sensitive data. Additionally, PWAs rely on Service Workers to enable app functionality and require an app manifest that controls how an app may be launched and displayed. Compared with native applications, PWAs have more limited permissions, which typically reduces exposure to security threats. These combined technologies ultimately help prevent attacks and fortify app security.

7. They’re more cost-effective to develop than native mobile apps

PWAs can be built using web technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, which makes them a more cost-effective alternative to developing a native mobile application for each operating system (iOS, Android, etc.). Compared to web apps, native mobile applications typically take more time and resources to build, have unique requirements for each operating system, and have associated app store maintenance fees.

8. They outperform standard web apps

Because PWAs are designed to be lightweight from a data consumption standpoint, they have better load times, impeccable responsiveness, and more seamless animations than traditional web apps. This all equates to a more delightful, scaleable, and flexible user experience across various devices. PWAs are also known for their ability to use progressive enhancement techniques to work across different browsers and devices even when those browsers don’t share the same capabilities, making them inherently more compatible than standard web apps and native mobile apps.

Examples of how PWAs outperform standard web apps:

9. They provide more opportunities to enhance user engagement

Push notifications are arguably the most powerful tool available to native apps to keep users engaged, boost retention, and ultimately increase user lifetime value (LTV). One of the hallmarks of progressive apps is that they leverage web push notifications to re-engage users even when they've exited a website. Because web push notifications work on both desktop and mobile devices, implementing this technology can also help you create a seamless, consistent, and engaging user experience across different devices.

Add Push Notifications to Your Web Application

Even if your web app doesn’t meet all of the above PWA criteria, you can still take advantage of web push notifications to boost your app engagement and conversions. Leveraging a push notification provider is a great way to implement this modern technology without spending the time and resources to build it out in-house.

OneSignal is designed to help you send notifications and seamlessly manage your user communication across various channels from one intuitive dashboard. Our platform is quick to set up and makes it easy to automate and send web push notifications across every popular browser and operating system (including iOS!) without doing any development work. If you don't have a OneSignal account, you can create one for free to improve your web app's UX, drive re-engagement, and increase conversions.

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