The End of App Stores Is Rapidly Approaching

Progressive web apps may soon free you from Google Play and the iOS App Store

Credit: NurPhoto/Getty Images

IIt’s time to blow up the walled garden that keeps you locked into the products Apple and Google allow into their app stores. A new generation of Progressive Web Applications (PWAs), now taking root on desktop computers, may soon make the jump to your smartphone, changing how you download apps — and where they come from — forever.

An update in recent preview versions of Google Chrome, which enjoys 63% of the browser market share worldwide, hints at the potential here. Users can now install apps from sites simply by clicking a button that materializes in the URL bar, giving near-instant access to powerful, web-based versions of services like Spotify — no more app stores or finicky download pages.

These install buttons are a magic peek at the future of app development. If you navigate to a PWA, such as Spotify’s web player, you’ll see a desktop-style experience and a new option to install the app, so long as you’re using a browser that supports the feature.

Once you’ve installed it, the app will open in its own independent window outside of the browser, create desktop shortcuts, and offer a full feature set — like the ability to use your computer’s media keys to skip tracks or pause music — as if it were a “real,” native app.

Upcoming improvements will allow these apps to do even more. Hidden options in Chrome allow PWAs to launch themselves whenever relevant links are accessed — Twitter’s PWA becomes almost as good as a desktop app with this option enabled, auto-redirecting tweet URLs to the right place.

PWAs might look like normal websites on the surface, but they’re backed by a new breed of technology that allows them to act much more like traditional apps, with off-line support, push notifications, keyboard shortcuts, and even the ability to be installed on your desktop or home screen.

These developments matter to the companies building the apps you use every day. Many of them are using web technologies behind the scenes to save time and money, and reduce development complexity — dramatically lowering the amount of time it takes to ship features to every operating system.

Popular apps like Slack, Spotify, Twitter, Visual Studio Code, and WhatsApp already use web technology to build their desktop versions, because it allows them to use a single set of code to run everywhere. A tool called Electron allows apps to be written using web-based programming languages while integrating them as if they’re a part of your operating system, supporting push notifications and off-line access.

Building an app for any operating system is an expensive, time-consuming challenge, which makes web development the obvious choice to both reduce costs and reach as many people as possible. PWAs remove the need for Electron, allowing apps to natively integrate into your operating system, with Chrome as a common base.

Most people are living under an app store duopoly.

Things are a bit different for PWAs on mobile. Centralized app stores operated by Google and Apple are generally the only way to download apps to your phone. Yes, Google technically allows the “sideloading” of apps on Android, so you can download and run programs from third-party vendors, but the function is disabled by default and more annoying to use with each Android update. Most people are living under an app store duopoly.

PWAs could technically work on mobile devices, and they’d likely take up fewer resources than traditional apps. Despite the benefits, only one of the two main players seems particularly interested in opening its doors to them. Google has invested in integrating Android and PWAs for years, allowing users to install them, receive push notifications, and even use them when off-line. I added a PWA to my own app, Write Together: It took just a few hours to implement at a basic level, and it now allows Android users to install the app locally, increasing retention and adding features like off-line support.

But Apple has dragged its heels on properly implementing many of the web standards that would allow PWAs to function correctly on mobile devices. The company remains silent about its plans, but it’s easy to assume it’s because these features would compete with one of its main revenue sources and likely encourage people to download fewer actual apps.

That said, both Google and Apple have incentives to encourage “native” code for their respective platforms: Locking app developers into Google Play or the iOS App Store allows these companies to reap a cut of app sales and retain control over what’s allowed on their platforms. An app like Metadata+, which was designed to track U.S. drone strikes around the world and repeatedly blocked by Apple, could theoretically live as a PWA on iOS. Yes, this would also mean “deplatformed” services like Infowars could live on in app form, but they’d at least miss out on the huge distribution potential an official app store guarantees.

Web technology already ate desktop apps alive, and the instant install button in Chrome and Edge will finish the job.

In any event, the PWA movement is already gaining real momentum with major players. Look under the hood and you’ll see that Facebook’s redesign, which launched at its F8 conference, is a PWA. And it demonstrates just how powerful the technology can be for improving the user experience.

The refreshed Facebook, which is rolling out to users now, feels more like an app than a website, setting the stage for a desktop version that’s unleashed from the browser for the first time. Twitter’s new website is a PWA as well. It grew out of an overhaul of the mobile website and eventually became the default.

The data backs up why PWAs are becoming more popular with app developers: Tinder said that its PWA helped reduce loading times from 11 seconds to four, and shrank its service by 90% compared to the native Android app. AliExpress increased conversions by 104% with its PWA and saw a 74% increase in time spent on the service.

Microsoft already announced in late 2018 that it would allow developers to list PWA-based apps directly in its Windows Store, which would make them available for installation on millions of computers around the world. Now, it’s planning to index any it finds on the open web and automatically add them to the store as well — and Google is widely expected to do the same with the Play Store by the end of 2019.

Safari on iOS remains a problem for PWAs in the short term — but the narrative is already shifting as Apple has started to quietly implement some parts of the standard, even as it disables key features, like support for using the iPhone’s camera in a PWA or offering push notifications.

If Apple continues to block Progressive Web Apps, their ability to gain wider traction will be in doubt. But doing so carries risks for Apple: Similar practices in the past have attracted antitrust investigations and massive fines.

Web technology already ate desktop apps alive, and the instant install button in Chrome and Edge will finish the job. Millions of people around the world are already spending the majority of their days in browsers, so it makes sense that the web should become the platform for apps. It’s a welcome shift away from closed ecosystems, back toward an open web, where anyone can build an app, publish it, and let millions install it in seconds.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.