Much like web components, progressive web apps (PWA) refers to a set of browser features designed to allow websites to behave more like native applications on mobile devices. As far as features are concerned we’re talking about: Offline, OS integration, push notifications, and background synchronization. To control those features the relatively new serviceworker API is provided, with which the addition of a manifest file will make the website installable on some devices.
Offline & caching
Good rule of thumb: if the browser implement serviceworker it can do offline, and choose how it’s done, much better than the old ApplicationCache. This is possible because serviceworker acts as a proxy for all requests made from the website: requesting an image? a CSS file? some Ajax request? all going through the serviceworker. Controlling requests means controlling responses: their origin (cache or network) and their contents. Any request or response can be altered, redirected or replaced. One obvious benefit is that any response can be put in cache. When the user is offline and his request fails, he’ll see a fallback page instead.
Let’s take an example: You’re preparing for an event, browsing the conference website. The website uses a serviceworker that cache all visited pages as well as a few extra pages in the background, such as the schedule page and the homepage. When the network during the event inevitably goes down, the schedule can still be accessed. And when an unseen page is requested, the serviceworker can catch the failing request and serve a default offline page, which is better than a browser error.
Another issue that come up every once in a while is websites failing to load because one third party asset used for ads or analytics is down. Twitter down? page down. To prevent this all third party assets can be served from cache, or there can be a timeout after which a cached version of the asset — or nothing at all — will be served. The serviceworker can enforce a timeout for network events as short as needed regardless of browser or server settings. Want your page to load under 300ms? As long as it doesn’t matter what it looks like, it’s possible.
Another example is if your users are in an area where data is expensive, a very aggressive caching strategy can be put in place: fetching all required assets when the serviceworker is installed and only allowing document requests to hit the networks. Fonts, images, CSS and JS will always come from cache. There are many strategies on how to handle requests, I would point to the very well made offline cookbook for a good idea of what’s possible. In a follow-up post I’ll talk about a strategy that should suit CMSs, based around the type of resource requested.
Creating a manifest file — a json file with a handful of keys — and linking to it through a meta tag is the only thing needed on top of a serviceworker to be able to install a website like an app on android and using chrome. Once the website is installed an icon is placed at the same level as the other apps and will open a standalone browser window — which can be configured to open fullscreen without the URL bar. For now it only works on Android using the Chrome browser but there is potential.
For our conference website what we want is a manifest file that will tell android to use the event logo as an icon and make the schedule page the default when opening the website from the new shortcut. The install bar shows up under certain conditions, these days a website needs to be opened twice in under 5 min for the install bar to show up. Chrome controls when it shows up, there is no API to force it to show, thankfully. There is one to prevent the install bar from appearing though.
I won’t talk about the lifecycle of a serviceworker here, for now just keep in mind that once the browser is closed, the serviceworker is still active and can receive server events. With OS integration of push notifications it means messages can be sent to users even when the website is closed. On the user side the notification will appear like any other app notification.
This is still early days for this feature. For Chrome their push server has to be used to send messages, while Firefox has it’s own (and open) server implementation. Eventually once the W3C get a spec sorted out things should improve. To see it in action check out the push notification demo, and the more up to date push notification tutorial.
Another exicing feature, even less ready than notifications, no demos are in working order yet. Now that the user can access our conference website offline, he might want to rate the sessions while taking the train home. With background sync all his ratings can be logged and once back online, the event queue can be replayed to save all his feedback.
Some technical details
To implement serviceworker a browser needs
PromiseAPIs, and when they have it, they also have most ES6 features implemented as well. In the serviceworker scope, modern JS can be used without breaking anything, no build tool required.
On the implementation, Chrome is leading the charge followed closely by Firefox. The others are showing an interest with Edge having started implementation, Safari plans are unknown but at least they didn’t say no, and I couldn’t find infos on UC Browser plans. There are more details about which browser implement which subset on Is Serviceworker Ready?
The exicing part of PWAs for me is not the app part. I don’t care about the competition of native vs. web apps, it’s probably going to end up like flash, and I’m betting on the web however long it’ll take. What’s exciting is the amount of control we now have on page loading and the control we keep on our websites once users are out of reach.
Want to make a page that self-destruct after 5 min of a user being offline? It’s possible.
Being a Drupal developer and Drupal being a CMS that would hugely benefit from this kind of feature2, I wrote the Progressive web app module that currently implements the Offline and OS integration part of this blog post. The code is still rough but working. A demo of the Drupal PWA can be seen on the “conference website”, to fully appreciate it turn on airplaine mode once it’s been loaded.
How funny would it be that let's encrypt is already compromised by the NSA? Anyone else thinking of The Wire and the police selling burner phones to suspects?
I said on twitter that this was bigger than frontend frameworks for Drupal, and still think that. Using frameworks can help PWAs compete with native but it's not required and, to me, not even the point. PWAs are about mobile and offline, I like that it gets us back to the mobile-first mentality that was there for most of Drupal 8 development cycle. PWAs allows us to explore new grounds that are relevant for all types of users. It's not just one subset of the community that will eventually benefit.