The Apps’ New Competition – Progressive Web Apps

Applications (apps) intended to be installed on Smartphones and tablets have been around for years. App Stores first appeared in 2008 and quickly became busy destinations. In 2013 Apple released a protocol known as iBeacon and various manufacturers built devices supporting the protocol in fulfilling its purpose of broadcasting a radio signal over Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) which could be received by Smartphones and other mobile devices. (BLE, unlike previous versions of Bluetooth, has a tiny impact on battery life if turned on all day.) Apple introduced iBeacons to its retail stores and other retailers followed suit. In general terms, the purpose was to alert users of an Apple app that there was content available nearby. When thinking about iBeacons, it is helpful to remember that they are recognized by an app, to which the user gave certain permissions at the time of install. Those permissions might include the right to know your location, your name and other personal details, and this information allows the app provider to build a database about you – when and how often you visit, what you purchased, how long you were in the store, how you moved through the space and more. In return for divulging your personal identity, you are likely to receive offers, loyalty points, expanded product information and other value adds both in and away from the store.

Apple’s iBeacon versus Google’s Eddystone

Until the summer of 2015 the Apple iBeacon standard owned the road. Then Google introduced a protocol they named “Eddystone”, after a legendary British lighthouse. While Apple’s protocol is proprietary, Eddystone is open source, with several frame sets, the key one being Eddystone-URL. A beacon running the Eddystone protocol can be made to broadcast a URL, a web address that anyone suitably equipped (on both Android and iOS mobile devices) may receive, discover and choose to visit or not. And herein lies the key distinction between the two protocols. iBeacon needs a dedicated app to receive its broadcast. Eddystone’s signal can be received by the Chrome browser, the Opera browser, with others coming onboard. Dedicated apps are costly to develop, costly to persuade people to install, take up space on both the screen and in onboard storage, and only serve one master, which means the user has to be really attached to the app provider. Otherwise, the app will be ignored and likely deleted to make room for something else. Eddystone requires only the browser Android users are likely to have, and that’s more than a billion people. And the Chrome for iPhone version will receive Eddystone broadcasts too.
App-less discovery of beacon-delivered content nearby is a game changer, and Google’s recent initiative, Progressive Web Apps, takes it to a new level. Google has created a toolkit for developers that allows the creation of websites that look and function like apps, including features like an icon on the phone’s home screen and offline functionality. What they don’t require is installation or updating because at heart they are delivered to the phone from the web. Here’s an example:
washingtonPost_PWA225 washingtonpost_send2phone600
This is the splash screen of the progressive web app created for The Washington Post. You can fetch it yourself from here. As you can see from the invitation below, accessing this content requires only a link, not an app install. And once you’ve clicked on the link sent to your phone you can choose to place an icon on your home screen, providing virtually identical access as to any real app you’ve installed. The PWA delivers on the promise of near-instant load times and scrolling shows virtually no lag. The jury is still out on how much content you can access once you’ve gone offline. I got some but not all. But further to the plus side, these apps never need updating, don’t take storage space and can be created at a cost that makes the solution affordable to many prospects that might not want to take on the cost of a custom app and the effort to get it adopted by a large enough audience who then must get attached to it or the effort is in vain. According to Google, every step in an app install decreases the number of people who will complete the process. From 1,000 who begin the process, something like 240 will complete the installation, and the number who go on to regularly use the app is deeply depressing to developers.
As the politicians like to say, “make no mistake about it.” This development will be huge over time. Imagine receiving a beacon notification on your mobile Chrome browser inviting you to click through to content like the invitation above. In two clicks you have the PWA available.
If the revolution in proximity, place and context has you by the throat, check back here from time to time. We’re on the story.

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