Shyam Sandilya
Apr 21, 2016

Web apps: The force awakens

The current usage and popularity of mobile apps carries with it some issues for marketers. It's time to seriously look at the nascent technology of progressive-web apps, writes Shyam Sandilya of Ecselis.

Shyam Sandilya
Shyam Sandilya

Here’s an interesting thought: Think of the apps you have downloaded on your laptop vis-à-vis the apps on your phone: You will possibly have four or five messaging apps and possibly one “productivity” app on your phone, while the ratio is reversed on your laptop.

This is reflective of how we use our devices; the desktop is where we get serious work done, the mobile is to mainly keep us connected and entertained, and the tablet, well, it is probably used when we need a break from both!

Yet, when it comes to your phone, there are many 'reading' (newspaper/magazine apps) and 'buying' (ecommerce) apps, which do not necessarily use any great native features of mobility, like location or your camera, but still essentially exist as a silent rebuke to the performance and features of the mobile web.

Why is this an issue? Apart from the platform dependency of apps, which means there needs to be at least two separate development cycles for each app, all these apps also:

  • Consume a lot of space on the mobile
  • Cost a lot of money to market
  • Are not very 'discoverable' organically (though app indexing is addressing this to some extent) and most importantly
  • Inhibit choice for customers who prefer discovery (without the commitment of a download) on the open web.

Despite initiatives like the Accelerated mobile pages project, marketers will still be reluctant to let go of even a 'reading' app based on a simple premise, which can be roughly translated as below:

Customer downloads my app = I own him/her for life with free mobile notifications and I can interact with him/her even while they are offline

Essentially if you break it down, what marketers are really gunning for with these—let's call them 'mobility-lite' apps—is the ability to work offline, send push notifications and drive repeat usage while having their brand name permanently on a customer’s home screen, which they hope builds some brand recall and action.

Enter progressive web apps. It's early days yet, with support from Chrome and a few other browsers (to some extent) at the moment, but this technology definitely seems to my mind to be a brilliant solution for users and marketers.

These web apps match native apps in all three features mentioned above: offline support, push notifications and, importantly, appearing like an 'app' on the home screen. A pioneering example is the Flipkart app.

The technology is very new and constantly evolving with new players and takes on the concept (Mozilla has its own version of sorts, called pinned apps) and challenges (web apps aren’t properly discoverable yet on Search). But the potential is fantastic. Not only can marketers give new meaning to their mobile websites, it flips things around and we can look at building loyalty and re-engagement for customers on desktop as well. Imagine the dollars saved in desktop SEM/digital advertising every day for your customer if you can exclude him/her based on the desktop web app install.

However the more important reason why this technology is exciting is that it is the next step of the open web. There is a clear limitation to how many apps any given user can use. The ability to discover new websites and content on the open web has been fundamental to the growth of the web and by extension, our industry.

Having an app on a phone shouldn’t be just a function of throwing money at a cost-per-install campaign (where marketers just look at large numbers, taking into account those who will invariably churn), but a gradual and more durable process of helping target customers discover a new site on the web, ensuring they build a connection with the brand and then prompting the heavy users to consciously get the app on their phone/desktop for repeat use.

The fact that progressive-web apps (in addition to everything else) have that very logical principle as the basis of their framework makes me think they're a winner in the long term.

Shyam Sandilya is digital director at Ecselis

 

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