E-Handbook: With progressive web applications, developers blur the lines Article 2 of 3

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Web app development morphs as apps and websites merge

The lines between web and mobile app and websites are blurring, so development silos are out, and boning up on building progressive web apps and single-page apps is in.

Rather than delivering separate mobile and web applications and websites, enterprise DevOps teams are moving to a consolidated web app development strategy. In this setting, they build one type of application, such as a single-page app or progressive web app, which has features of all three. DevOps teams, which dive into building these multi-experience apps, will be prepared for upcoming successors, such as conversational-first apps and development platforms.

Progressive web apps (PWAs) will dominate new development projects over the next five years, said Elizabeth Golluscio, an analyst for Gartner. While traditional web app development projects will remain viable for some uses, PWAs will replace 50% of general-purpose, customer-facing mobile apps by 2020.

"PWA development is a must-have skill for web app development teams today and going forward," Golluscio said. "They must move away from building stovepipes, the traditional three-tier type app, that provide one big, fat user experience that's hardwired to middleware, databases and the whole back end."

Prepping for multi-experience development

Kimberly-Clark Corp., along with many enterprises, is challenged to keep up with the sheer volume of all the digital experiences it needs to create. When Kimberly-Clark started building web and e-commerce sites a decade ago, about 400 million people worldwide used the internet and mobile devices. Now, websites can be accessed by over 4 billion people using many types of front-end devices, said Matthew David, senior manager on Kimberly-Clark's mobile, IoT and user experience global team.

Matthew David, senior manager of mobile, IoT and user experience global team , Kimberly-Clark Corp.Matthew David

Today, knowledge workers expect a continuous experience across all the multiple, digital touch points -- phones, tablets, desktops, etc. -- they use. "The differences between web and mobile apps and websites are disappearing," David said. So, too, should the barriers between development groups within an organization.

At Kimberly-Clark, once-separate development teams have been consolidated to increase efficiency. "It's a matter of survival. It's inefficient and counterproductive to have an indefinite number of delivery teams for all the different visual form factors," David said.

PWA development is a must-have skill for web app development teams today and going forward.
Elizabeth Golluscioanalyst, Gartner

Although recognizable companies such as Twitter and Forbes have implemented PWA and single-page app (SPA) strategies successfully, these types of apps are not household words yet. Steve Lane, CTO of Soliant Consulting, said a customer will typically want a website enhancement, such as adding an app function or freedom from maintaining native mobile apps for several different platforms. A web experience that is consistent across devices is another common request. Developers must be able to determine if a client with these or similar requirements needs a PWA or SPA, Lane said.

In a recent Soliant web app development project, a customer wanted a complex calculator feature that would generate product specifications and price quotes added to a traditional website. A PWA or an SPA would fulfill the mission, and Soliant chose the simpler option: a rich SPA that plugs into the original web site.

PWA development calls for old and new skills

Michael Facemire, analyst, Forrester ResearchMichael Facemire

The good news for developers is that PWAs are, in essence, web apps with a few technologies added on, said Forrester Research analyst Michael Facemire. Most baseline web app development building blocks are still relevant, including HTML, JavaScript, CSS and most web integrated development environments. Also, existing development frameworks -- such as AngularJS and React -- offer PWA-specific tools.

The key PWA add-on technologies are service worker APIs and manifest files, Facemire said. The service worker is a script, which runs in the background of the website, and enables storage, caching, push notifications, offline operation and other features. Pre-caching, for example, allows the speedy opening of a site. A web app manifest file is another key PWA add-on. Usually, it's a JSON metadata file that developers use to design the website. The manifest file is used to define the entry page URL, icon designs, a theme color and other design elements, Facemire said.

The differences between web and mobile apps and websites are disappearing.
Matthew Davidsenior manager of mobile, IoT and user experience global team, Kimberly-Clark

Kimberly-Clark's developers add chat features and motion UIs for animations to enhance their PWAs, David said. Chat gives site users quick access to information in a more user-friendly way than a search through FAQs. Animation has several uses, such as to train the eye of the customer to act on a prompt and distract them for the one or two seconds it takes for a result to appear. "Even a few seconds of loading time is unacceptable now," he said.

What's ahead for multi-experience app development?

Development tools for building progressive web apps are still nascent, Gartner's Golluscio said. DevOps teams are cobbling together existing tools, such as those mentioned above, and using features of their mobile application development platforms (MADP). Golluscio thinks MADP vendors will be the first to offer multi-experience development platforms (MXDP), which promise integrated development tools for building fit-to-function apps without coding.

When MXDPs emerge, DevOps teams will face the usual challenges in tool selection, Golluscio said. An MXDP will be a full-featured, integrated package, but it will carry the risk of lock-in. Meanwhile, a best-of-breed multi-experience tool set based on PWA development experience will require maintenance and constant updates.

DevOps teams should prepare for sea change in web app development in the next few years, David said. "Then, we'll look back and laugh about coding websites and apps separately."

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