Are Progressive Web Applications The Future Of eCommerce

Are Progressive Web Applications The Future Of eCommerce

Photo by Mikaela Shannon on Unsplash

Online retail is primarily web-based, and for most smaller eCommerce merchants, that’s as far as it goes. Native applications have advantages, but they’re expensive to build and maintain. Maintaining two — or more — code-bases is beyond the resources of many eCommerce stores — and the advantages are often not that impressive where sales are concerned. So, the great majority of eCommerce merchants simply don’t bother with a native application.

Nevertheless, there are distinct advantages to native mobile applications. They have a permanent space on the user’s device — a constant reminder of the brand and its products. Perhaps even more importantly, native applications are at least minimally useful when the device doesn’t have a network connection. And native applications have easier access to on-device functionality like push notifications.

Progressive web applications, first mooted by Google a couple of years ago, could prove the solution to the native app problem for eCommerce merchants. Progressive web applications are just that, web applications. But they take advantage of many of the newer capabilities of web browsers and the Web API to provide native-like features.

The “progressive” in progressive web application means that applications should be designed so their functionality is progressively enhanced — they work well on low-end devices but take full advantage of more advanced features when available.

Progressive web applications should also work offline; a feature enabled by newer web technologies like Service Workers and the IndexDB API. Service Workers are JavaScript scripts that can run in the browser whether the user is connected to the internet or not. IndexDB is what it sounds like: a full-featured database for web browsers. To work offline, progressive apps typically populate a database while they’re online, and Service Workers allow that database to be accessed while the device is offline.

Although this isn’t necessarily a must for progressive web applications, Service Workers and the Background Sync API could conceivably be used to allow users to place orders while they’re offline. The order would be synced with the store’s backend when the user connects. And even if none of that sounds good to you, a side benefit of progressive applications is that they’re likely to be much faster than a web interface that has to fetch data from a server rather than a prepopulated database.

Progressive web applications are also installable, at least on some devices. Android users can install progressive web applications on their home screens, but, as you might imagine, Apple is less enthusiastic about progressive web applications than Google. Safari does not support Service Workers, and it doesn’t look like support is coming any time soon.

Apple devices aside, progressive web applications are an “almost native” solution that doesn’t demand the investment a native application might, which makes them a great option for smaller eCommerce stores.

Matthew Davis is a technical writer and Linux geek for Future Hosting.

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