Why progressive web apps (PWAs) may ultimately benefit Google more than Microsoft

Google and Microsoft are fierce competitors in AI, productivity tools, search and more. Additionally, Google's refusal to bring its first-party apps to Windows phone was a strategic blow that contributed to the platform's poor adoption.

Given this troubled history and present rivalry, it's ironic that Microsoft's Jeffrey Burtoft, principal program manager for partner app experiences, reached out to Google to forge a partnership in developing progressive web app (PWA) standards. Google had introduced service workers or scripts that run in the background, into its web-app solution that reduced the system's resource usage, allowing PWAs to work efficiently. Microsoft was intrigued by Google's approach which seemed superior to its own Universal Windows web-app strategy.

Microsoft had been investing in a Universal Windows web-app bridge called Westminster, which it merged with Google's PWA solution after the two joined forces. Though this partnership is seemingly the best chance Microsoft has to close the app gap, it may profit Google even more.

Related: PWAs, the great equalizer

Microsoft's PWA potential

Microsoft needs PWAs, Centennial apps and the whole of the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) to succeed. Ironically, the company's historic lack of support for its ecosystem is counterintuitive to the resources it possesses and the dire state in which that ecosystem has languished. Microsoft's reaching out to Google for a partnership likely reflected a sense of desperation for a strategy that it realizes is a "Catch 22" that would benefit its own ecosystem while enhancing Android's and Chrome's growing threat to Windows.

PWAs could help Microsoft populate the Microsoft Store with a plethora of apps. Granted, some app categories don't translate well to PWAs, and PWAs may not have the quality or features of dedicated apps. Still, if the strategy is successful, PWAs would greatly benefit cellular PCs, Microsoft's Surface Go LTE category (and OEM devices it inspires) and Microsoft's rumored Project Andromeda pocket PC category.

As Microsoft pushes Always Connected PCs (ACPCs), it is forced to highlight their laptop productivity aspects since the touch-centric mobile platform (even for 2-in-1s with detachable keyboards) is weak. Surface Go has the same weakness. PWAs provide hope that the whole of the Windows 10 ecosystem would benefit from them, particularly since Windows 10 treats them as native universal apps. Such an outcome would make Microsoft's connected Windows PCs, particularly small mobile-focused devices like Surface Go or Surface Andromeda, more relevant.

Google's PWA play

Android is the most used mobile platform in a mobile-centric personal computing world. PWAs would benefit Google by reducing a user's need to download apps that consume device space and are frequently ignored once downloaded.

Furthermore, the mobile web and search are still highly frequented to accomplish tasks despite app stores boasting millions of apps. PWAs, which combine websites with the UI and other benefits of dedicated apps, optimize on this web-centric user behavior. Google's search and A.I. fortés could help it make PWAs in the Android and Chrome ecosystem a quick, seamless and rich experience.

Additionally, if PWAs become a "standard" computing experience, Chromebook efficiency and appeal could be boosted. Though not as popular outside of the U.S. education sector, Chromebooks are a growing segment. PWAs as part of Chrome make those devices even more practical.

PWAs' double-edged success

Image Credits: David Breyer

Image Credits: David Breyer

As personal computing becomes more connected, Google browser-based Chromebooks and web-based tools make its connected personal computing strategy appear forward-looking in some regards. Combined with Android's dominance of mobile, PWA's app-web solution fundamentally enhances Google's personal computing strategy by making web experiences on millions of popular Android phones and Chromebooks behave like native apps.

Microsoft is reportedly delaying Surface Andromeda to refine the OS and bolster the Windows ecosystem with PWAs. Though PWAs may be Microsoft's best chance to close the app gap, they're also Google's tool to make Chromebooks more relevant and Android and Chrome more powerful.

  • I think that Microsoft and Google will both benefit equally from PWA as, aside from OS differences, the same app will exist in both ecosystems with the same features. Google refusing to bring their apps to Windows Phone was a blow for some but not all users and just shows how petty and spiteful Google can be as well as how much of a hold Google has over the industry, although a lackluster search app was available. Ultimately though that was Google's decision and didn't make the platform any less viable as performance wise Android on the same hardware was incredibly slow by comparison.
  • Developing apps isn't cheap, and why should Google (or anyone) waste all of the time and resources for such a small platform?  You can say Google was being petty, but it all comes down to $$. 
  • Then why did Microsoft bother to create apps for Android and put them on the Play Store for free, if money really is a concern then why didn't Microsoft charge Android users for them? The point is that it wouldn't cost a company worth $600bn that much to develop apps for a rival platform especially when a company worth $750.6bn decided to spend time and money developing apps for Android and make no money back through end users. Let's not forget that in developing for W10M those apps would work on a much more than just mobile.
  • Google was not the only one who did not bother bringing applications to Windows Phone. I would even argue that they were not major contributor to the platform’s demise — you can use Outlook to access Gmail, Spare Phone to access Google Voice and set Google as the default search provider in Edge. OTOH banking through the browser outside of the US (read OTP via SMS on every transaction) was a complete non-starter... Just 2c.
  • You are incredibly naive if you believe that Microsoft made them out of the kindness of their hearts. Of course Microsoft is making money on these apps, there would be no incentive to do this if they didn't.
  • I think it's more that they had to change their strategy around mobile. They tried the strategy of having exclusive features on WP/WM10 and it wasn't working (not here to argue about marketing or the reasons why it WP/WM10 didn't work). Even if they don't have a mobile platform right now or even if they did and it was still a distant third place, they still needed to capture mobile users somehow even if it's just using their software. Regarding making money, they're not directly making money off the free apps but it will indirectly drive more people to use their services like office subscriptions.
  • Whhaatt?!?! Not a certified "wardtorial" on AC!?!? :) Great piece, Jason. I always enjoy your perspective over on WC, I think PWAs are great. While MS will definitely benefit greatly from wider development, really it will be Google/Android that benefits more. Android continues to push forward in developing countries and areas of the world where data is at a premium. PWAs only use a fraction of the data and resources that native applications need. This, "Google had introduced service workers or scripts that run in the background, into its web-app solution that reduced the system's resource usage, allowing PWAs to work efficiently."... ... and this, "PWAs would benefit Google by reducing a user's need to download apps that consume device space and are frequently ignored once downloaded." ...and this, "Google's search and A.I. fortés could help it make PWAs in the Android and Chrome ecosystem a quick, seamless and rich experience." tell the story for Android's next billion users.
  • LOL. Thanks! I appreciate the support!
  • Call me crazy, but how do PWA's benefit Android? PWA's will just be a replacement of current Android apps. The update experience might improve, but the user experience remains the same (provided PWA's become as powerful as native apps).
    Microsoft, on the other hand, will legitimise its app store, what could give them an entry into the mobile space. Obviously, Chromebooks tend to gain by PWA's as well. But Android not so much.
  • If ChromeOS and Android eventually merge this would make downloading apps unnecessary, and also ensure Google's control over ads. This absolutely benefits Android.
  • I think PWA's if done right would be so much better than apps. The need to always update apps is a pain in the ass. If the experience is updated in the background all the better.
  • I think the PWA will be beneficial for everyone in the long term as it's a platform that has so much potential.
  • The number one reason I expect PWAs to benefit Google more than Microsoft is Microsoft's insistence on using their own rendering and JavaScript engines. Oh, I won't deny they are very good. But still there are differences between Microsoft's engines and the engines the majority-used browsers are built on. For PWAs of significant complexity, it's likely developers are going to be less inclined to bother making sure everything works on Edge as well as say, Chrome.