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Websites that act like apps – only better – are a gift to mobile users

Mobile gadgets like smartphones are liberating when they help us do things that would have required a desktop computer otherwise – I learned this lesson again when the power was out after the hurricane. But they’re also confining in that we’re working with the mobile web, a small browser on a midget screen. Getting things done on some mobile websites can be like pulling teeth, a complicated, painstaking process in which you don’t want to make a mistake.

But we’re moving into a new way of doing things that leverages the differences between a browser like Chrome in your phone and a fully mobile web “app” that was designed from the start to operate on your phone. So-called “progressive web apps” are being keenly studied among developers, with support from Google, Microsoft and Mozilla, the big browser players. They’ll change how we do things and, delightfully, they’ll do much of this in the background.

Here’s the problem: People like apps because they’re straightforward and designed to do just a few things well. But I challenge you to look carefully at the apps on your own phone. Some people have few, but most have a large collection, trying different apps from business as well as recreational and productivity apps like note-takers and to-do list creators. And the funny thing is, most of those apps get used a few times and then they’re left to languish.

In my own case, I keep forgetting just which apps I’ve got on the phone, and when I recently upgraded to a Google Pixel, I realized when I went to restore my apps that I couldn’t even remember what most of them were. The few I do use I rely on, but most just wasted space.

So here’s the progressive web app (PWA) solution. Let’s say you rely on a particular website a lot – maybe it’s a travel site, or a place where you get your recipes. Whatever the case, as you use the website more than a few times, things begin to happen. The site loads just as always, but now it begins sending you data in the background. A regular app might require a lengthy download before you can install it. A PWA can load data without your noticing.

Now the mobile web begins to get turbocharged, because while the website retains its functionality, the PWA can be placed on your screen as an icon to perform specific tasks, but only those you’ve shown that you need to be doing – no unnecessary app downloading here.

Notice, too, that this model doesn’t require you to call up and search an app store to pull down what you need. The website has already figured it out and made the app available – used in this way, a website progressively becomes an app, or can if you use it enough.

You don’t have to use the PWA as a separate icon if you’d prefer not to, but you’ll get a prompt asking your preferences. Once it’s loaded, the progressive web app works full-screen and offline. No slow load times and better performance, that’s the promise. What more could companies with a mobile web presence ask for? This at a time when we’re using browsers on smartphones even more than we use them on our PCs, according to recent studies.

This is a shakeup of the app store model that has consequences. Early indications are that adopting a PWA makes customers more likely to manage a transaction on the mobile web than they would have been without it. We’ll learn more as PWAs begin to spread.

Back to the hurricane. I used Chrome on my smartphone when the power was out to pull off some fairly complicated transactions, but it was both tedious and terrifying, the latter because it’s all too easy to hit the wrong prompt on a smartphone’s small browser screen. A PWA that is downloaded as a result of my activities will simplify what I do and make it far faster.

You’ll begin noticing PWAs as this ecosystem evolves, but because they don’t call attention to themselves, you may quickly just get used to them. And that’s a tribute to the concept.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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