The beginnings of progressive web apps

Every innovation has a story that needs to be told.

Interestingly, the beginnings of progressive web apps (PWAs) date back to 2007. On the 9th of January 2007, Steve Jobs was introducing the iPhone at Macworld 2007.

Steve introduced a unique device which combined three products into one small and lightweight handheld device: a revolutionary mobile phone, a widescreen iPod with touch controls and above all an innovative Internet communications device. We all know that story but, as unlikely as it may sound, in the early days of the iPhone there was no app store.

Steve wanted the developers to build iPhone apps using standard web technologies. Web apps that could be used through the device’s mobile web browser, Safari.

“The full Safari engine is inside of iPhone. And so, you can write amazing Web 2.0 and Ajax apps that look exactly and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone. And these apps can integrate perfectly with iPhone services. And guess what? There’s no SDK that you need! You’ve got everything you need if you know how to write apps using the most modern web standards to write amazing apps for the iPhone today. So developers, we think we’ve got a very sweet story for you. You can begin building your iPhone apps today.”

Extract from Steve Jobs speech at Macworld 2007

Unfortunately, mobile web apps never really took off. Jobs announced in October 2007 that a SDK for the iPhone would be available the following year. In July 2008, via an iTunes update, Apple finally introduced the App Store. The app mania was just at its beginning.

In 2014 Forbes referred to Steve Jobs’ original recommendation to build web apps for the iPhone as one of his "biggest blunder", suggesting that Apple’s leader showed an unusually slow response to the enormous untapped potential of the native apps. They certainly did not expect such a rapid turn of events.

It is not a coincidence that, a few months later, a ComScore report report showed the world that the average person was spending 78% of their time on mobile devices using only three apps. On tablets, that number was even higher, with 87% of user’s time spent exclusively on the top three apps. The report also showed that on average, in the United States, smartphone owners installed zero new apps per month.

In 2015, designer Frances Berriman and Google Chrome engineer Alex Russell coined the term “Progressive Web App”. Progressive web apps are web applications designed to be mobile friendly. They can send push notifications, work offline, look and feel like an app, load on the homescreen, and provide countless advantages both for the users and the developers.

The Progressive Web App concept was officially presented at the prestigious Google I/O developer conference held in May 2016 in San Francisco, where it was met with great success. With Apple lagging behind in implementing new web APIs in Safari, Android’s overtake in becoming the best mobile web app platform was simple.

However, by focusing on web-based mobile applications, Steve Jobs was once again way ahead of his time. Today, a decade after the bold announcement, the development of progressive web apps is hugely exciting. Much of my focus nowadays is directed to PWAs and it has been an amazing experience so far. Unfortunately very little seems to be happening in that regard at Apple. We all really hope that Safari’s chronic delay will soon change.

Steve would be delighted.