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R.I.P. the Native Mobile App, 2008-2017

Apps are responsible for changing the world, but their days might be numbered, as Leo Burnett Emerging Technologies Director Danny Ryback explains

If you've ever said, “An app would be great for my brand, but we can't afford it” or “An app would be great for my brand, but no one is going to download it,” then something called a progressive web app might just be right for you. And even if your brand has a successful mobile app with millions of users, a progressive web app still might be right for you (just as it was for Twitter).

To be clear, I’m not trying to sell you on some company’s product. What I am trying to sell you on is a company’s concept, and that company is Google.

Some folks at Google who were intent on replacing apps with mobile websites coined the term progressive web app (PWA) in 2015. And at the end of the day, that’s all a PWA is: a mobile website that looks and behaves just like an app. But why would all those smart minds huddled in Mountain View want to replace apps?

Because they suck.

OK, that’s an overstatement but consider all of the negative aspects of building an app. First, they’re incredibly expensive. If done right, you have to code your Android app in one language, your iOS/Apple app in another language and your website in yet entirely another language. Furthermore, anytime you make an update, you must update all three channels.

Second, you have to deal with app stores. For the Apple App Store, that can mean delaying your initial app launch by three weeks to gain approval. App updates can also be a rigorous process to ensure you meet Apple’s guidelines. Then there’s the aspect where the app stores get a cut of revenue derived from the app.

Lastly, and this might be the most important point, users have been inundated with apps to the extent where they now have app fatigue. They’re tired of going through the process of finding an app in the app store, waiting for it to download and finally using it only to see it’s not exactly what they thought the experience would be. Still not convinced on this one? Here are three recent stats that might change your mind: 49 percent of users downloaded zero apps in the previous month, 25 percent of apps downloaded are never opened and mobile websites have three times more monthly unique visitors than apps.

All of that being said, I actually believe apps have awesomely revolutionized what we do with our smartphones and changed the way we live our lives. They deliver rich content and engaging experiences, and gave birth to disruptive companies such as Uber and Instagram. Apps have their own dedicated icons on the home screen for instant access and they enable you to receive timely notifications to keep you informed of who liked your meme or whether the Cubs just scored in the bottom of the third.

But guess what? Here comes the buried lead: Mobile websites can now deliver all of those rich, engaging experiences too. Over the last few years, there have been numerous enhancements that have significantly closed the capabilities gap between the mobile web and native apps. Here are just a few of such enhancements:

• high-quality visuals/animations and smooth gestures
• gaming
• quick load time
• ability to work offline and with weak internet connections
• a dedicated icon on the home screen
• a full-screen, self-contained experience (i.e., doesn’t live in an ugly browser)
• ability to access the phone’s camera, accelerometer, gyroscope and other sensors
• ability to have e-commerce with mobile checkout, such as Apple Pay
• ability to send push notifications

As you can see, a PWA can deliver your brand a slew of benefits, but what might really stand out to you from the list above is that it delivers a fast load time and works offline as well as when there’s a weak internet connection. This is all possible due to a caching technology called service workers.

I originally mentioned that the intent of PWAs was to replace apps with mobile websites, but a more accurate statement might be that they’re aimed at doing all of the things that apps do well while eliminating the things that suck about apps.

Here’s how they work. Visit a mobile website as you normally would. Websites that have been coded as a PWA will then display a prompt to allow you to add this website to your home screen. An icon (that looks like every other app icon) will now appear on your home screen. Upon tapping that icon, it will launch the website in full screen (i.e., it no longer lives in an ugly browser).

If you see the potential value in PWAs, then you’ll love the fact that building one requires minimal changes to your existing website. You’re not building a PWA as much as you’re just making tweaks to your existing website.

There are some limitations to PWAs: While they do work on iPhones, they can’t currently take advantage of every feature. There are also instances when a native app is going to make more sense for a brand, such as when delivering an augmented reality experience, which currently can’t be achieved in mobile web. In most instances, however, progressive web apps will be able to deliver a rich, branded experience to a wider audience and at a fraction of the cost compared to native apps. If I’m a brand that has an app or has considered having one in the past, evaluating a PWA would be high if not at the very top of my list for 2017.

Danny Ryback is emerging technologies director at Leo Burnett.