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Omkar Konaraddi

Progressive Web Apps could help new mobile operating systems succeed

Published on 2019-01-06.

If PWAs become popular (and they probably will) then they could help new mobile operating systems succeed. This post explains why but I'm not an expert.

"PWA" is an abbreviation for Progressive Web Apps. Here's a checklist from Google that goes over the properties of a PWA. TL;DR of the checklist: a PWA is a website that feels like a mobile app; it's buttery smooth, works offline, and can even be added to the user's home screen for subsequent visits.

So what do PWAs have to do with mobile operating systems? How could PWAs help new mobile operating systems succeed? To answer these questions, we first need to find out why mobile operating systems of the past have failed. In this post, we'll look at the Windows phone and extend what we learn there to other mobile operating systems that were failures too (at least in terms of gaining nontrivial market presence and still being around today).

Why the Windows phone struggled to succeed

From Verge:

If you’re wondering why none of Microsoft’s many strenuous Windows Phone efforts ultimately paid off, the key answer lies in the platform’s chronic failure to attract third-party app developers

There's more to the failure of the Windows phone and the success of Android and iOS than just having apps. For example, marketing and the differentiating features are important (the latter of which rapidly changes over time so it's worth checking out Verge's article to get an overview of the history of the Windows phone). But the lack of popular apps was a deal breaker for many potential users. From CNBC:

By the time Microsoft did all the work necessary to build a modern smartphone platform, Windows Phone, Android had already run away with most of the third-party market. Without a considerable market share, Windows Phone didn't have the same attraction to develop for as iPhone or Android, so popular apps either launched on Windows Phone much later or, in most cases, never at all

The crux the issue is convincing developers to build apps for a platform with relatively few users and convincing users to hop on a platform with relatively few apps. It's a catch-22 situation. To developers (or their employers), developing for the Windows phone was either an afterthought or not a thought at all. To users, despite what the Windows phone had to offer, having few apps was a deal breaker since apps are a big part of the smartphone experience. This issue afflicted other mobile operating systems too (e.g. WebOS, FirefoxOS).

The Windows phone could have succeeded if Microsoft made it convenient for developers to port their existing Android or iOS code to Windows. Microsoft was working on that but canceled it after acquiring Xamarin which enabled developers to build Android, iOS, and Windows apps with one codebase but it didn't enable developers to port their existing Android and iOS code.

The Windows phone could have also succeeded if it provided something more valuable than having all your necessary or popular apps (and if it overcame any other barriers to its success). But what could a smartphone give you that would be more valuable than having all your apps? Perhaps privacy (albeit only for a minority of smartphone users today).

So how do PWAs help?

Using the web as the platform

The success of PWAs would get rid of the catch-22 situation that afflicted the Windows phone. PWAs, which are just websites, leverage the web as a platform so user's can obtain and use their apps in the form of web apps instead of native apps. Unlike native apps, web apps are not tied to a specific device or operating system. PWAs run where ever there's a browser that supports the relevant standards. A new mobile operating system just needs a browser for users to use their apps on the web.

There's more to a successful mobile operating system than just being able to use your apps but the success of PWAs is a step towards a future where there's more than two mobile operating systems. Maybe we'll see the Windows Phone make a come back.

Once again, I'm not an expert.