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Google just showed us the future of Android: The web is your app store

I remember thinking last November (2016 if you're reading this from the future), while watching speakers at the Chrome Dev Summit, that Google remembered how important the web was several times. Not the internet where data files back and forth, but the web, the part of that internet you see through a web browser.

Whether you're using Chrome or another program that is built for seeing all the things on the web, or a component in another app that can show you a part of the web that's meaningful and relevant to what you're doing right this moment, the web is a powerful medium for all things. It's also one of the first user experiences we all had and our children may have.

The web was was the first look at what we call User Experience for all things tech.

OK, maybe remember isn't the right word here. Google has spent countless amounts of money and time building tools to both make the web and see the web. The Chrome browser has gone from an amateurish side project into a full-fledged operating system that's so well connected it just works no matter where your things are (or where an apps things are) in the world as long as they are on a server.

Chrome OS leverages the internet — all the tubes and data pipes that put almost anything digital within our reach — and uses the web as a way for us to see and hear it all. Terms like "online" and "offline" can blur in Chrome OS because almost every user interface is a web page and everything these apps can do is done the same way as a web page 10,000 miles away would do it.

There are a lot of amazing things happening at Google that are overshadowed by Android.

It has also been very busy adopting existing and building new web standards, making it easier for anyone to distribute everything through the internet with a friendly web interface and trying to get the internet to more places so more people can be a part of the web and everything else it has to offer. Google has not sat idly by whilst it watches Android slowly become the dominant computing platform in the world. It's been busy preparing for what's next and laying the foundation for what comes after what's next.

And we got to see a glimpse of what's next through a short post on the Chromium blog about Progressive Web Apps (PWAs). The web can become a global app store and our phones can be a tool to see a web interface that can do almost anything.

At first glance, it sounds like we're just seeing a better way to put bookmarks on our home screens. And in a sense we are. We will be able to tap a button or click a mouse pointer on a link that drops an icon on our phone or Chromebook and maybe one day the Chrome browser on other platforms to take us to something the developers of that webpage want us to see. That sure sounds like a browser bookmark. The difference is what we can't see without diving into everything happening behind the fancy icon.

If you have a web browser you can run a web app — the next step is making those apps part of Android.

If you're technically inclined, check out what Paul Kinlan has to say at Google's Web Developer site to see how this is so much more than a bookmark. We've heard about instant apps that run on-demand yet are still Android applications.

This is a similar, yet different, way to merge the internet, the web and the thing in your hands you use to see it. These new ways for PWAs to become part of Android use an Android app that's built and installed on the fly through Chrome to connect with an application that is running on a web server. And Google's development tools mean that things we never thought of as a "web page" can be done on that server and displayed on the screen you're looking at. Things like games, or accounting software or a virtual reality tour of a museum. Things that we usually have to install on our phones.

This is what Chrome OS does so well. The things you see in an app might just be things happening in a server room and you wouldn't know the difference.

It doesn't have to matter where things are stored or where they are processed as long as the user interface is on our screen. This new PWA integration is how that gets started.

If you read through Kinlan's breakdown you'll find that there are some really interesting things coming. An app that runs on the web will be able to use cloud messaging and give you the same notifications you get from an app installed locally. A web app will be able to open and process other files, which could be local or stored on another server somewhere. Things you create with a PWA can be stored locally, managed by Chrome using its permissions and secured storage and shared with other apps and other people using the same intents that a local app does. Again — just like Chrome OS. Most exciting of all is that getting all of this to work on other browsers is happening. Google wants to make the web your new app store, and more.

If Andromeda is some sort of merging of Chrome and Android, this is the beginning of it.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

35 Comments
  • I just don't see that being efficient enough. I see the "great" thing they are trying to do but(most fundamental of all the buts), I don't even trust all my pics to stay on Google photos. I absolutely have to have a hard copy of them. No questions. No why's that? Just have to have them on an SD card(admittedly I back them up to a external HDD as well and I'm I've of those guys who actually has a real photo album that I print them off and put them in as well). So to have ally apps and that data to be strictly on the web, I'm out. Unless you, Jerry (I say Jerry specifically because I have always been able to understand when he explains a little further), can help me understand how this would be recoverable *if* the web ever gets taken down or restricted or any other hypothetical cyber warfare debacle.
  • Risk assessment. The odds of the internet being taken down or triple redundant backups of redundant backups of your data on Google Photos (as an example) being lost are much smaller that a hard drive or sd card or both going bad at your house. But your data — docs you create, pictures, source code even CAD drawings — is still local with a web app. It's on your Chromebook/phone with the rest of the application data. The backend runs on a server with the front end rendered by a web view component. A well done PWA is indistinguishable from a native app from a user interface perspective. The benefit for us is that we don't need to store the bulk of an app locally and we don't have to perform the bulk of the computation. The biggest unknown is if people/companies will make good PWAs. There are benefits for them as well, but it's always slow to get a change into gear.
  • Yes, I like this very much. Thank you for this really good article and your additional explanation to the other poster.
  • I knew you could help me understand. Appreciate it! 🤘
  • Well, I was wrong, after viewing the comment response order, and I sincerely apologise. I'm dbag for the day.
  • No problem man. Kinlan's post at the dev site is able to get developer-types excited, but getting the idea to regular folks isn't something google does very well on their blogs. I knew people would be interested even if they don't like the idea so I try to explain it when I'm able.
  • Right now we are certainly in the phase of get the technology out there, get developers building better sites and apps and have users be using better experiences on the web. The consumer aspect? we'll I am not sure if I care that much if Progressive Web Apps as a brand ever makes it in to the public, I just want developers who deploy to the web to be incredibly succesful and they choose the web as the first platform that they build on and to have all the opporutinity that native developers do.
  • Thanks for this excellent explanation,Jerry. Yes, this will be a good thing.
  • The problem is why? We have tons of computing power local on our PCs. Why do I want to do the bulk of my processing over the web. With storage so cheap why keep my primary in the cloud. Great place for backups, but not for primary. Maybe this model works for simple docs and small graphic school assignments. How does this work for massive CAD diagrams. This documents are huge. For large graphics and videos the same issue. Just moving in and out of the cloud would be highly inefficient. Most internet connections are not good enough to handle moderate size. Yes at home I have a 1 Gig connection - but that is rare for most people. Just 12 months ago in my old house I did not have anything close to that type of speed. This is just Google being Google. They want to move everything to the cloud - not because of efficiency but because it helps them disrupt the competition. Sometimes they are good at this, but sometimes they are wrong. I think this is a time where they want to push before the systems are close to being ready.
  • Well they gotta start somewhere, right? If the research they and others tout is accurate, thing of what's possible globally where wi-fi connections aren't as great as they are here in the west. I mean, Jerry is right about the UI. If the same or better experience can be achieved for the user, then why wouldn't this be great for them. Sundar recently said that smartphones should cost $30 in India. That type of phone will probably not carry all the computing power that you're referring to. PWA's could be incredibly useful for someone that buys that phone.
  • Something I wanted to say but didn't want to make this post any longer (or more boring for some). Facebook for Android and iOS is almost a web app. Most of what you see is a "web page" inside a Facebook web browser. Facebook could change the front end into an actual web page and use a chrome web view to see it (for Android) and what we have is just a very small app that tells the web view where to go when a thing is clicked and what type of "window" to open. When Google gets notifications through PWAs sorted and final, I wouldn't be surprised if Facebook released a proper PWA very soon after.
  • Very good point. That's also why apps like Friendly and Metal are so much less memory hogs than FB. They're less rich versions of the FB app or more rich versions of m.facebook.com depending on your preferred way to describe them.
  • What's wrong with notifications through the PWA as it stands now? I mean, Facebook and many others are succesfully using web push right now. (looking to see what we need to make that final leap)
  • Can you explain the security behind this? Do the PWA's get the same access to data, etc. as Chrome?
  • Straight out of the developer docs. I think these are public, if not they should be so screwit. Managing permissions By Installing your Progressive Web App it now becomes part of the system. Added sites show up on the home screen, app drawer and throughout the Android System-UI as a user would expect. Permissions are handled differently, by default your app can only have the same permissions surface as Chrome would normally have when installed - you can't ask for Camera access at install time for example. This means that as a developer you must request permission for sensitive APIs such as Camera and Microphone access, notifications etc at runtime as you would for any normal website and the Chrome runtime will prompt you for access. Android normally gives instant access notifications, Installed Progressive Web Apps do not have this permission granted by default and your user must explicitly opt-in to receiving notifications
  • I spent a lot of time not saying "We follow the web security model", that is: sandboxed data, https only and currently there is no default access to incredibly powerful features like camera (they have to be granted at runtime on first use), bluetooth or notifications etc. But we are looking at what can we do when we know the user has done the install. We don't have the API's on the web to access things like contacts, or app data etc, heck we can't even listen to broadcast intents etc. The web will get a lot more power, but that won't come at the expense of user privacy and security. Also wrt to Chrome, the wording was supposed to be we can only ever get the permissions that Chrome has permissions too, we in a PWA ask for something like "ACTION_SET_ALARM". We also don't give access to information that Chrome has such as bookmarks etc, that is private.
  • So is this the beginning of the end for desktop apps? Where everything is cached on a server with a time stamp in case communication is lost... And then simply picking up where you left off when you regain connectivity...? Tokens? This might get interesting.
  • I don't think it's the end for self-installed apps, especially on the desktop. I'm finishing up a few things then going to go play Fallout NV. A single player game with no online component. That program makes more sense to be on my PC. Some Android apps are the same. But so many of them are already just a way to get web content, that this is the best move. I really hope session management is able to be done well and we can leave and pick up right back when we return. Google Docs style at least.
  • Not just this, something the article doesn't emphasize enough, not all Web Apps or PWAs are really using the server for anything but delivering the app. Web apps like SVGOMG ( https://jakearchibald.github.io/svgomg/ ) do everything on the client side, there is no server component for handling any of it's tools.
    Not to mention Chrome 57 also adds support for WebAssembly which is basically native code for the web (C/C++ compiler and all). Really Progressive Web Apps is just a way for companies to easily deliver an app-like experience without fragmenting their work between Web and Native.
    My guess is the purpose of Android will be to just stay a step ahead of the web so that Google has a target to work with when developing Chrome and writing web standards.
  • As always Jerry, stellar job keeping us updated on the more technical aspects and explaining complex concepts in ways that normal people can understand. That's a skill that is very rare.
  • Well I do remember WebOS a great running phone that used the same way as a Web based system but technology was too slow to make it fast at that time but would be great now with today's hardware
  • SENSATIONAL!! Jerry, definitely a great piece here. I love this technology and it's potential. For a user like me, this is another step closer to Shangri-La. I currently use the Twitter PWA myself and uninstalled the native app. I'm looking forward to hearing more about this Google and AC. I believe it really is the future. This type of advancement is showing what's so endlessly possible with the internet and harnessing the power of the web with deeper purpose.
  • Where did you find the Twitter PWA app?
  • Through Chrome.. Then just add it to your homepage.
  • Hmm I like the idea but hopefully it's smooth and buttery performance like native apps. So, will this be platform independent? Work the same on any OS?
  • These Progressive Web Apps should work everywhere, the "progressive" in the name is supposed to indicate that these apps are progressively enhanced, if a browser doesn;t have the tech (offline support for example) then the web app will still load and function but just not with that one piece of tech.
  • Every single PWA relies on having a connection whether it is Cellular or WiFi. If you are in an area where you don't have a connection then every single PWA is useless. Carriers and Internet providers are really going to have to step up their efforts to cover all areas for this to even work well.
  • I don't know that is accurate for all PWA's .. The CNET PWA was demonstrated while the phone was on airplane mode just to highlight that fact. Still, being connected at some point is necessary for all mobile technology at some point isn't it? The idea with these PWA's is if you are in an area with a weaker network, they can still function with even less data usage from what I've read about it.
  • some apps like Facebook and Twitter are useless without internet connection so this will be nice especially know what a resource hog the Facebook app is
  • We have the ability to offline a web app fully (through the use of the Service Worker API). Technically we don't conisder a PWA to PWA if it doesn't offer the user an experience when they are offline (this could be something as simple as a custom offline page, but in many cases is the full working app).
  • Great stuff, Paul! Excited to see further developments in this space.
  • Excellent, Paul, thank you for all the hard work.
  • Apps were always kind of a more powerful webapps. Now webapps just caught up! No real difference in experience for the end user. Web apps are kind of overrated as they won't solves the "problems" of apps (discoverability and long term usage)
  • I am keen to understand more about what you mean in terms of discoverabilty (heck, most traffic is driven by search and social - one of the super powers of the web) and long-term usage?
  • You can discover Progressive Web Apps easily in apps like outweb.io or pwa.rocks.