A Case for Progressive Web Applications

TL;DR — If your company is or is planning on doing business in emerging markets, architecting your web applications for performance through progressive enhancements is one easy way to drastically improve accessibility, retention, and user experience.Disclaimer: It so happens that not only people in emerging markets suffer from poor networks.Towards the start of 2016, Progressive Web Applications (PWAs) became a really hot topic all over the interweb, as you can see here, here, here, here, or and here. Even your run of the mill Google search returns a staggering amount of chatter:

Google Web Search for ‘progressive web applications’

In this post I’ll talk about why progressive enhancements are good for you, your customers, and your business especially if you have operations in emerging markets. I’ll then show you three quick wins to help you on the path to adopting progressive enhancements into web applications going forward.


First things first: What is a PWA?

A PWA is built by baking performance early into the development through progressive enhancements. There’s a great summary of it in Pete LePage’s piece ‘Your First Progressive Web App:’

  • Progressive because it works for every user on any browser.
  • Responsive because it fits any form factor.
  • Connectivity Independent because it is designed with the worst network in mind.
  • App-Like as a result of the separation of functionality from application content.
  • Fresh due to the service workers updating content in the background.
  • Safe because it is served over HTTPS.
  • Discoverable since search engines are better able to identify it as an application.
  • Re-engageable through features like push notifications.
  • Installable on a user’s home screen for easy access.
  • Linkable through a simple url.

PRCAFSDRIL makes a horrible acronym, but… the point still stands.While all of these are great for any application, the first three — progressive, responsive, and connectivity independent — are the most important: they’re what I’d summarize as the ‘accessibility aspects’ of these applications. Accessibility, in this case, basically means that any user on any device on any network can access and interact with a web application with no noticeable difference in experience. For emerging markets, this means that you and your team should be focused on configuring the application for 2G.Google has been advocating for PWAs for a few years — in fact, last year, at their 2016 Chrome Developer Summit, progressive enhancements was the focus of most discussions. And rightfully so — PWAs are slated to have a huge impact. For example, the adoption of features like Service Workers by browser vendors will drastically improve how applications are consumed on mobile devices around the world. And since PWAs can provide a much richer browsing experience, the end goal seems to be one that inches towards completely blurring the line between a web app and native application experience.

Performance goals should be for the least of your customers.
– Someone at Chrome Dev Summit 2016

Building for the next billion in mind

According to Forbes, over 70% of world economic growth over the next few years will be from emerging markets. And emerging markets are natively built on mobile. This gives PWAs a great opportunity to be a fundamental driving force of growth.Accessibility, as I pointed out earlier, is one of the core tenets of a PWA. Even with the proliferation of the mobile cellular networks over the last few years (as shown in diagram), accessibility continues to remain an issue especially for internet users, particularly ones in emerging markets who are still remanded to slower networks than the developed world.

 Mobile network coverage and evolving technologies. Source: ITU

The unique accessibility problem PWAs can be configured to solve is a combination of factors including cost (2x the monthly cost of a person in a developed country), device fragmentation (mostly an Android issue), and availability of better network options (i.e 3G, 4G, or LTE).The high cost of cellular data forces mobile users to access applications that consume as little data as possible (which is why WhatsApp is so popular in emerging markets) and for much shorter durations. I’ve personally experienced this while browsing Facebook in Nigeria: I ran through over 3GB of data in two days.

 Fixed- and mobile-broadband prices, $$$. Source: ITU

However, the cost of cellular data will continue to drop as the technology matures and as more suppliers compete for market dominance in emerging markets.The next big issue is the fragmentation of the mobile device market, which is especially true in Android-dominated emerging markets:

 Global Smartphone Sales. Source: Gartner

For Android, fragmentation has been a bittersweet pill. On one hand, consumers have access to thousands of devices, in all shapes and sizes, price tiers, colors, different performance, whatever. On the other, developers and product teams are stuck in a awkward place, unsure of which screen size or performance benchmark to build their applications against.Here’s an example of just how big the problem is:

 Android OS Fragmentation by Device. Source: OpenSignal

**Note: The chart above shows only device fragmentation and doesn’t include OS, screen size, brand, etc. Read more.Finally, as developing countries become prime investment destinations, infrastructure will continue to be built out to support better networks like LTE and other alternate forms of access to the web services like Safaricom’s MPESA platform and for new comers like Flutterwave.Even with these existing problems, there’s still an immense opportunity for growth. Three quarters of people have still yet to come online, and the platforms, services and apps they adopt are going to be the ones that are best configured for their network and device realities.

 Global Internet Usage. Source: ITU

What does all these mean for you, your customers, and your business?There’s a chance for you to capture some of that 3.9 billion person market. It’s really a tremendous opportunity, and anything short of that would be a gross understatement.Fast growing online retail giants like Konga.com and Jumia (an Andela partner), both operating in Africa, see the opportunity: they’re taking a proactive, optimistic approach by leveraging the current and future capabilities of PWAs to better serve their potential billions. So far, they’ve reaped significant rewards by baking progressive enhancements into their web applications: Konga was able to cut data usage by 92%, allowing users to do more with their current data plans. And Jumia was able to increase conversions significantly by 7.85% (vs 4.5% for native app). That makes a big difference.If you’re a CEO/CTO, product owner, or product manager, you’ll only find yourself at considerable ease when you know all of your customers have been served. And as a customer, you’ll have better access to your favorite web applications with a richer browsing experience. It’s a win-win for both parties, especially the enterprising business who can drastically increase conversion, reduce bounce rate, increase their visibility and assure better data security.Google has some more compelling case studies as to why progressive enhancement should be the roadmap of your web application.At Andela we’re constantly mulling over how to best empower the next generation of technology leaders. As we expand through the continent of Africa, finding some of the most talented individuals, we’re always looking for better ways to reach them. Luckily I’m part of the team–Marketing Tech–rebuilding our website to adhere to the accessibility standards progressive web apps are setting and of which I’ve made a case for in this post.You can quickly begin progressive enhancements by:

  1. Adding W3C compliant Web App Manifest file

Example manifest.json file in root directory (preferably){"name": "Andela","short_name": "Andela","description": "Extend your engineering team with world-class developers","lang": "en-US","start_url": "/","display": "standalone","orientation": "portrait","theme_color": "#3359DF","icons": [{"src": "static/homescreen-128.png","sizes": "128x128","type": "image/png"},{"src": "static/homescreen-144.png","sizes": "144x144","type": "image/png"},{"src": "static/homescreen-152.png","sizes": "152x152","type": "image/png"},{"src": "static/homescreen-192.png","sizes": "192x192","type": "image/png"},{"src": "static/homescreen-64.png","sizes": "64x64","type": "image/png"} ], "background_color": "#3359DF"}2. Installing a Service WorkerExample service worker registration in a sw.js file (you can name this whatever you like)// register service workerif ('serviceWorker' in navigator) { window.addEventListener('load', function () {
navigator.serviceWorker.register('/sw.js').then(function(registration) { console.log('SW Status: Registered Successfully'); }).catch(function(error) { console.log(`SW Status: Error: ${error}`);
}); });}3. Serving your web application over HTTPSUPDATE: The first version of this post published last year was titled ‘A Case for Progressive Web Applications in 2017’. It also stated that this was the first post of a three part series. Coupled with the fact that I was unable to get to the other parts of the series as originally intended, the case for Progressive Web Applications need not be relegated to any particular year. They are needed today as they were last year and even more so going forward. I hope to continue writing about progressive enhancements with real world examples and use cases going forward.

  • **Note: Browser support: Chief among the reason people shy away from progressive enhancement is the lack of support by some major browser vendors, Apple being the elephant in the room.
  • **Acknowledgement: Huge thanks to my colleagues on the Andela Marketing & Technology teams for reviewing and proofreading this piece.
  • **Crossposting: Share this on my blog as well

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