As 2018 comes to a close, businesses are naturally reflecting on what worked, what stuck with consumers, and what trends to take seriously. Unsurprisingly, mobile has held the winning share of web usage for long enough now that it's time for another shift in digital strategy.

As Microsoft's Aaron Gustafson said at Build 2018, "mobile ate the desktop back in October 2016."

It's time to go from thinking "mobile first, web second," to a truly unified browsing experience that's consistent on all devices. In 2019, progressive web apps (PWAs) will be one of the best options for doing so.

Service workers making progress

A progressive web app is a browser-based environment that provides an app-like experience. It doesn't need to be installed, but you can save a homescreen shortcut to launch it.

It's actually not any specific type of technology, but a term coined by techies Alex Russell and Frances Berriman in 2015 to describe what they were observing at the time as a trend in web apps. Three years ago, many digital products started using existing technologies to create user experiences that were less dependent on connectivity and had features closer to native mobile apps.

These progressive web apps go beyond simple responsiveness to create better experiences on all devices. While the term and technology has existed for years, true mass adoption of PWAs depended on popular browsers supporting the features that make them possible. The primary bottleneck here has been the compatibility of 'service workers', the scripts that allow browsers to take action in the background.

Rusty Mitchell, VP of design at Mercury Intermedia, is skeptical that PWAs are accessible enough. "Until the platforms are set up in a way that it's a lot easier for people to get these things, and use them in the same way as they would jump into the App Store and hit an install button, and the thing's on their phone," he said, "it's not going to be as compelling or viable, I don't think."

Tech giants on board with progressive web apps

Recent updates from Google, Apple and Microsoft, however, all suggest that PWAs are about to have a moment. A new version of Chrome launched on Microsoft 10 makes PWAs accessible on Microsoft desktops, and Apple Webkit recently rolled out support for service workers.

And at May's Google I/O 'Web: state of the union' session this year, the spotlight was on progressive web apps.

Chrome Product Lead Ben Galbraith noted, "The gradual rollout of service workers illustrates the importance of the progressive bit here." Galbraith continued, "because PWAs that are written progressively to take advantage of browser features as they become available can seamlessly upgrade with no need to redeploy, so PWAs are now everywhere."

The potential downside, however, is the resources required to transition, but more sophisticated platforms are already democratizing service workers.

"It's easy to see how progressive web app functionality, coupled with websites' historic advantages in discoverability and the relatively low cost of development, have ushered in a new era of online presence management," notes Itai Sadan, the CEO of Duda, a web design platform for agencies that now supports one-click deployment of websites as PWAs.

"Small businesses and the web professionals that cater to their needs no longer have to choose between creating an app that provides an amazing experience or a website that drives customer traffic. Going forward, all SMBs will get the best of both worlds in one progressive web app."

PWAs matter more in 2019

After a decade of software managers struggling to find the right balance between native mobile apps and browser-based apps, we're finally getting closer to one unified experience on every platform and device.

Progressive web apps bring many of the best features of separate options together, such as the offline and notification and camera functionalities of native apps and the discoverability and low-friction accessibility of websites.

More importantly, they offer all of this at a potentially lower cost to businesses, as it's now possible to build and manage one viable software delivery channel.

It's up to you to determine how relevant it is for your business, but it's worth keeping an eye on. 

Published on: Dec 31, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.