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Google uses Chrome's reach to give your phone a better web

November 10, 2016 6:01 PM
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A technology called progressive web apps could make mobile browsing faster and more engaging, and Google is flexing its muscle to support it.

The web has taken a beating in the smartphone era. But it's about to start beating back.

The web's explosive growth, starting in the 1990s, connected the world's population. In the last decade, though, we all started tapping app icons instead of web hyperlinks when it was time to chat with friends, share photos and buy products online.

Now Google's Chrome team and browser allies from Mozilla, Opera and Microsoft are putting a new twist on things. It's called progressive web apps -- PWAs. They endow websites with many of advantages of native apps that run on Google's Android or Apple's iOS. And they can outdo native apps when it comes to fast, hassle-free loading.

PWAs are headlining this week at the Chrome Dev Summit, Google's two-day conference in San Francisco for programmers who want to figure out where Google is taking browser technology. Native apps hog the spotlight, but at the conference, Google will reveal a good reason why browsers generally and Chrome in particular also deserve a place on the stage: unbeatable reach.

"We have over 2 billion Chrome instances that are active" each month, said Darin Fisher, Google's vice president of Chrome engineering and the conference's opening speaker. That's less than 2 billion people, because a single person can use Chrome on multiple devices, but it's still a platform with immense power.

That power is essential to making Google's vision become a reality. If it succeeds, that browser icon might be the one you reach for on your home screen a lot more often.

Website usage tracking firm StatCounter says browser use on mobile devices just exceeded PC browsing worldwide.

That success also could help restore the fortunes of the web, the closest the computing industry has come to freeing us from software that works only on one device or another, like a Windows laptop but not an iPhone. In an era when tech giants wield tremendous power, the web levels the playing field and makes it easier for new competitors to join the game.

It's no wonder Google is pushing the mobile web. This month, browser usage on tablets and phones for the first time surpassed usage with PCs, analytics firm StatCounter said.

Apps might get the glory, but the web does a lot of the work already. When we need to interact with a business or service, a website is often our first point of contact. Apps are popular, with millions available in Apple and Google app stores, but it's hard to convince people to install them, and even then, most lie dormant.

Fisher isn't pronouncing a death to native apps, but he thinks PWAs means the web can shoulder more of the load.

"It's expensive to get people to install an app," Fisher said, but progressive web apps arrive fast through the browser to keep visitors happy, then download extra abilities silently in the background. For website developers, he said, "there's really no fundamental limit to the kinds of experiences you can create."

There's a place for apps and websites, analyst firm Gartner believes. "A mobile website is more generic, with wider reach, like your ABC or CBS or Fox or NBC channels," said Research Director Jason Wong. Native apps are like "a cable channel like the Cooking Channel or MTV targeted toward a specific segment." Apps are great for people who use a company's services are lot, like the 10 or 15 percent of users who come back to an e-commerce site frequently, but websites are crucial for the rest.

If you're browsing the web, you won't see any fancy label announcing a progressive web app. But done well, you'll like it.

The first idea behind a PWA is that websites arrive as fast as possible in basic form so you can get started immediately, then gradually flesh themselves out in the background -- thus the term progressive. Compare that to a typical native app that often requires you to download tens of megabytes of data and wait for an installation before you can get started.

PWAs also download components so they work offline. And they take advantage of push notification abilities for the web -- for example Carnival Cruise's site that can prompt customers to finalize a reservation before it expires in 24 hours. And PWAs can be placed as a home-screen icon so you're more likely to use them again.

The results have convinced companies like the Washington Post, in India and Chinese e-commece giant Alibaba. When Alibaba moved to a PWA, it found a website visit was 76 percent more likely to convert into a website transaction. Among Android device users, monthly usage increased 30 percent, and for those with iPhones and iPads, monthly usage increased 14 percent.

PWAs are particularly popular in developing countries where mobile networks are slow and coverage is spotty, said Alex Komoroske, a Chrome group product manager. Using a cheap, low-end Android phone with an older 3G connection, downloading FlipKart's e-commerce native app took 14 minutes, but the company's progressive web app took 14 seconds, he said.

Google has built into Chrome much of the required supporting technology -- push notifications and the Service Workers standard, for example. Mozilla's Firefox and Microsoft's Edge are on board, too, making it safer for web programmers to bet on PWAs.

Apple hasn't joined the party with its Safari browser, but Fisher is optimistic.

If 50,000 website developers start using PWA technologies, "you can imagine Safari engineers will see there's a lot of interest," Fisher said. "Developers can have some influence, voting with their feet for what they care about."

Apple forbids other browser makers from using their own browser engines on iPhones and iPads, so running Chrome doesn't enable PWAs to iOS. Apple's lack of support is "a real concern for developers," Fisher said, but embracing the PWA approach still boosts performance on Apple's iOS-powered devices.

And progressive web apps will benefit from web payment technology where Apple is ahead, letting you easily complete a purchase with Apple Pay. A more general technology, the web payments interface, is coming to mobile browsers to connect to Android Pay , a credit card, Alibaba's AliPay service, Apple Pay, or whatever other payment mechanism your phone offers.

It all leads to vast improvements over the plodding, hard-to-read websites still common with mobile browsing.

"Everybody should be building a progressive web app," Fisher said. "It just makes sense."


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