Progressive web apps are a nice alternative to native apps for your mobile e-commerce strategy. They are not real applications. They don’t need to be downloaded or installed. They don’t have to be submitted to the AppStore. And more importantly, their icons are indistinguishable from “normal” apps.
March 19, 2018, Apple has finally added the essential technologies necessary to introduce Progressive Web Apps to iOS. The 11.3 release made the update even more interesting because Apple decided to add PWAs in a stealthy way, without informing the community about this change.
Why did they do it?
Well, first of all, Apple doesn’t want PWAs to compete with their own AppStore where users can download fully tested, official versions of their app of choice.
Apple doesn’t have the same censoring power over PWAs. Users can install any PWA bypassing the AppStore. But Apple doesn’t want that and creates artificial roadblocks in UI to prevent proliferation of progressive web apps. Why? Most likely they don’t want to confuse Apple users who will see 2 identical app icons and won’t know which to use.
Another reason is that Apple has full control over what new apps contain. They can censor and veto “bad” apps from the store and wall off their “perfect garden” from bad influences.
More than a decade ago Apple built-in web apps into their mobile devices. They weren’t called PWAs back then but Apple was the true trailblazer of the new thinking, the thought leader of a web-based future. Even though the new tech was buggy and lacked a lot of essential stuff, it was an important step forward.
iOS PWAs Not Quite There Yet?
During the next 10 years, the technology stagnated, though. Web apps as they were introduced didn’t gain enough traction in the developer community because of lack of tools and general bugginess. Apple users couldn’t appreciate them either. First, because they were actively promoted. Second, because web apps offered fewer capabilities than native apps.
Complete lack of user awareness was not helping the cause. The mindset was centered around mobile apps. They were the alpha and the omega of iOS development. But with time the mentality has shifted once again.
This time it was thanks to Google who poured resources into building a solid development toolset, created standards and educational materials about the new web app technology. They were also the team behind the name. Yep, although Apple got the technology going, Google coined the name Progressive Web Apps into the minds of the community.
New tech included two crucial improvements introduced by Google: service workers and web app manifest specifications. Even though the new additions were a welcome change in PWA development, there was still a lot of ground to cover.
Do PWAs Have a Bright Future on Apple Devices?
What has changed one year later? Today iOS sports the version 12.1.4. PWAs are growing in number and can still be used freely without AppStore approval.
And with the AppStore Guidelines that are poorly defined and featuring their infamous “I’ll know it when I see it” approach to content restrictions, it’s often hard to predict with certainty if your app will make it to the store.
Apple saves the right to ban or veto any game or app from its platform without giving developers strict guidelines to follow. They are vague on purpose to give AppStore moderators ample wiggle room in regards to censorship behavior.
On the other hand, PWAs are not bound by often arbitrary and poorly defined Apple restrictions. This opens a lot of possibilities for adult content providers, controversial and other emotionally charged content – everything that Apple won’t host on their family-friendly AppStore.
Are Severe Limitations Worth the Effort?
The Web.app process that manages PWAs on iOS platform is buggy and has crucial limitations that are most of the time exclusive to iOS:
- PWAs can’t use native components such as Face ID, ARKit, or Bluetooth (BLE is also not working),
- PWAs are barred from reaching readings from Beacons, the phone battery, or altimeter,
- PWAs don’t have consistent behavior across different platforms (they have different icons, vocabulary, and presentation),
- different web browsers have inconsistent UIs that don’t offer users the best user experience,
- PWAs can’t sync in the background the same way native apps can,
- PWAs can’t ask access to your phone’s location, phone book, or other sensitive data,
- PWAs are limited in how much data they can store in the phone which means developers are incentivized to build supercompact PWA stores,
- PWAs can’t show web push notifications or serve users installation banners,
- PWAs can’t access native social apps and interact with them (FaceTime, Messages, Find My Friends, etc.),
- PWAs don’t have in-app payments or integration with built-in Apple payment services,
- PWAs can’t use speech recognition limiting users in how they can input data,
- users can’t have multiple PWA instances on a single device.
Bear in mind that most of these limitations are exclusive to iOS devices. Thanks to Google’s efforts, Android is free from the majority of what iOS users have to deal with. Android-based PWAs offer unlimited data storage capabilities, can show web push notifications, access key phone sensors on request, and even set up multiple PWA installations on the same device.
The fact that iOS users can rename their progressive web apps before installation or get some nice-to-have corporate features doesn’t make up for the slew of inconveniences that users have to deal with.
The Crooked Ways of Apple PWAs
In regards to PWA usability, Apple doesn’t spoil iOS users at all. For example, in order to add a PWA app to your home screen you have to go to the website, tap share, then select Add to Home Screen. Nothing says “We disapprove of that” louder than that.
Compare this to how Android offers users a seamless PWA experience through the Web Apps Banner:
The difference in the approach is striking. Where iOS users need very specific knowledge to even find out that it’s possible to use the site as a PWA, Android users can just tap on the prompt on the screen and enjoy the experience.
A Disappointing Conclusion
Even in 2019 Apple still religiously follows the mantra “There’s an app for that” and doesn’t want PWAs to stand in the way of regular apps. It’s anyone’s guess whether it will change in the near future.
By the looks of it, Apple will have to invest a lot of resources both in a UX overhaul and the technicalities of PWAs on Apple devices to level the playing field and make PWAs a viable option, especially for e-commerce use. Otherwise, with so many roadblocks and complexities, it’s hard to make a compelling argument in favor of building progressive web apps for iOS devices.
Want to join the exciting future and build your own e-commerce PWAs on Android or even iOS? Let’s discuss how we can help you select the right PWA technologies and succeed in the mobile market today. Get in touch with our mobile team today.