Progressive web apps carry a lot of potential for associations looking to boost their mobile presence. While they can save money over time, they’re not without costs.
Developing an app can be a major undertaking—especially for associations without the built-in discipline.
That’s because, while there are two primary platforms for smartphones, devices differ heavily—from low-end Android devices to high-end iPads—slowing down the process of development, and raising user expectations, says Michael Spinosa, president of the website development firm Unleashed Technologies.
“One of the biggest challenges that associations face today is we’re creating these mobile applications,” he says, adding that they’re “always coming with issues that have to be customized per platform.”
And there’s the factor of where the value comes into play for association mobile apps. Often, they’re associated with events, and when the event is over, the app sits unused—without the level of engagement to match the hard work your organization put into it.
But there may be a path forward for organizations that want many of the capabilities of mobile apps, if not the desire to show up in an app store. That path forward is progressive web app (PWA) technology, which allows for mobile-style experiences using standard HTML-based web technology, including icons on the homescreen and slick, native-feeling transitions.
The Underlying Tech
In recent years, these libraries have become increasingly capable and can do things such as send notifications to end users, save an icon on the home screen, and store data locally in an offline mode. Spinosa says that PWAs can “do all of the major things that we’re looking for in a mobile app.”
There are a number of benefits to PWAs for application developers, most notably that they separate the developer from the traditional update cycle of the mobile operating system, allowing them to make tools that work well without the additional challenge of keeping up with new features released by Apple or Google in their respective mobile operating systems. This can save money, Spinosa says, because it avoids the financial trap of having to develop for a mobile platform’s new features, or the potential of breaking features that could require big changes down the line.
Another benefit is that because PWAs are mobile websites at heart, they can benefit from traditional web approaches, such as search engine optimization, while utilizing existing analytics tools, making life easier for marketing teams.
“Progressive web apps are visible to the web, so they’re SEO-friendly, which mobile apps are absolutely not, and they require a separate analytics engine to understand them,” Spinosa says.
PWAs come with their own set of challenges, however. For one thing, the cost savings comes on the maintenance end, rather than the development end, as development will need to be specialized for mobile users.
Spinosa emphasizes that it would be a mistake for developers to rebuild new platforms using completely separate technology from what’s already being used on the web, because this fails to emphasize cost savings. He recommends a more strategic hybrid approach.
“Progressive web apps, when done correctly, have that upfront investment, but then it’s a hybrid situation, so it’s sort of leveraging Drupal’s display capabilities, but where we want to use that technology we can.”
But some of these problems aren’t necessarily the fault of web technologies. One challenge is the gatekeeper role that major smartphone companies play—particularly Apple, which has a vested interest in encouraging the uptake of its popular App Store and has been somewhat slow in adopting key HTML standards that PWAs rely on. (Apple is the subject of an antitrust lawsuit with a popular video game company, Fortnite developer Epic Games, that is focused on these issues and recently went to trial.)
But for associations, Spinosa says these issues aren’t as significant, as they likely aren’t using the more advanced features that a popular mobile game might. Also helping: Apple has implemented some features that have been seen as roadblocks in the recent past.
“My opinion is that the majority of associations should be looking at how progressive web apps can change the landscape,” Spinosa says. “I do think it suits the larger association better than the micro-association because there is a cost associated with it.”
But for those that can take advantage of them, PWAs can prove a long-term cost savings while dulling the harshness of the bleeding edge.