Android embraces Progressive Web Apps that act like local software

Google is further blurring the line between local apps and web apps in Android, rolling out the ability to add Progressive Web Apps to the homescreen but with the speed of a regular app. A feature of Chrome, the new functionality is currently only available in Chrome Canary – the most cutting-edge of versions for developers – but will be rolling out to Chrome 57 beta over the next few weeks, Google says. The upshot for users, so the promise goes, is apps that have the visibility of locally-installed software but the flexibility of online services.

Currently, while you're able to pin web services to the homescreen, they're effectively bookmarks. Progressive Web Apps go significantly further, mimicking the experience of a local app by caching a version on the device for offline use: even if you don't have an internet connection, you'll still be able to use the web app. Meanwhile, they're also integrated with things like Android's notification management.

In order for their web apps to qualify, however, developers will need to tick a few boxes. They'll need to be provided by a secure, HTTPS server, for instance, and use a responsive design that works on both phone and tablet displays. There are speed requirements too, around how fast the initial interface must load: Google says that, even on a 3G connection, the first visit to the app must take less than ten seconds. Google has a tool, Lighthouse, which makes testing these criteria and others more straightforward.

Web apps that support the new feature will get an option in Chrome to "Add to Home screen"; from that point, the web app's icon will show up in the launcher and any other app management system the device uses. It will be able to live alongside, rather than replace, any native app version. Permissions like notifications and access to hardware such as the device's camera will be assigned on an as-used basis, and other apps will be able to launch Progressive Web Apps directly. Still in the pipeline is support for associating a web app installed locally in this way with a certain file type.

To be clear, this is different from another web app system Google is experimenting with, Instant Apps. In a sense, they approach the concept from the opposite direction: rather than installing an app from the Google Play Store, the software is delivered piecemeal from the web. Google began public testing of Instant Apps last month.

Progressive Web Apps will support any version of Android back to Jelly Bean (v4.3).

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