Mobile Commerce
Mobile Commerce
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 min read
October 5, 2017

Android Instant App vs. Progressive Web App, and what that means for e-commerce retailers sitting on the fence

Venkata Subramanian

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Let’s start at the beginning from where the two contenders originated.

  • Mobile responsive website: the website is tweaked to be mobile-friendly (for instance, it makes it easy to read on a mobile phone without having to zoom or scroll sideways), it doesn’t have to be downloaded so it doesn’t take up space, since it doesn’t have to be downloaded it is not data-costly, and it’s less expensive and quicker to develop.
  • Native mobile app: the website content is presented to suit the mobile medium, navigation is easy, it accesses phone features that users are familiar with thereby allowing them to do more on their mobile device, the user experience is better, there is more engagement here from the loyal users who have downloaded the app and come back to it time and again.

Now as you can see, with a lot of companies there is always a dilemma as to which of these mobile options to pick for their e-commerce businesses. Mobile responsive and economic, or better usability and better engagement? That’s a tough pick.

So now both mediums have upped their game to bridge those gaps where they previously lacked, in order to create a more wholesome experience. And the result is Progressive Web App (PWA) and Android Instant App (AIA). This new development blurs the lines a little between the two. Funnily, both are Google initiatives, but there still are difference. And that’s what this blog shows you.

Progressive Web App (PWA)

PWA aims to combine the best of both worlds – speed, app-like interaction and offline usage, with no need to actually download anything. This way it eliminates the biggest drawback of the mobile responsive website – the dependence on a shaky internet connection and a poor user experience.

PWAs are similar to apps in that they can be saved to the home screen and launched with a tap of the icon. When built to an established standard, Chrome will prompt the user to add the PWA to their home screen. But that’s not the only similarity they now have with native apps. Traditional traits that were earlier associated with native mobile apps, like push notifications, geolocation, access to the camera and microphone, and offline working are now traits that PWAs offer, too!

So apart from the features mentioned above, they still provide the traditional benefits of mobile responsive websites, like discoverability and shareability via a link, access on any device (although it doesn’t have full functionality on iOS, and doesn’t offer offline functionality or push notifications on Safari and Microsoft), and the bookmarking of links.

Overall, this is a good proposition for brands who are on the fence about investing in a mobile app but don’t want their users to suffer a mobile experience that’s offensive to accepted standards.

Android Instant App (AIA)

Like the PWA, this initiative strives to eliminate the biggest drawbacks of native mobile apps while enhancing its popular features, i.e. it bridges that gap between the fluidity of native apps and the speed of websites sans the data-costly downloads.

The first difference is that, like a PWA, it can be shared by a link, which opens to an elementary and stripped down version of the app that doesn’t need to be downloaded. This is a big plus for the app. For instance, a person can send someone a link to a DIY Halloween costume, and the receiver will be able to access that part of the app that was linked, but without having to download it. If the receiver thinks they want to get in on the action of the rest of the app, only then will they have to download the full native version. But again this is easily done as they don’t have to search for the app on Play Store. While AIA is possible with Android, iOS devices still benefit from the full functionality of native mobile apps.

In all this, users usually can’t tell the difference between the native mobile app and the AIA because they are designed to be effectively the same with all the features of a native app, with the only giveaway for an AIA being the simplified interface. Otherwise the benefits of Android Instant Apps are that it launches quickly, it has an excellent and user-friendly interface and, of course, prevents data-costly downloads as you aren’t required to actually download the app.

For companies that already have a native mobile app, the good news is that AIAs are only an update to the existing native app, not a new app altogether. So now a wider audience can engage personally with their brands without having to first download the app.

Similarities between PWAs and AIAs

  • Have an app-like interface
  • Offer offline usage
  • Load fast
  • Don’t have to be downloaded
  • Can be shared via a link
  • Can be easily launched from an icon on the home screen

PWAs are different from AIAs because

  • They lack integration with some smartphone features like contacts, Bluetooth, flashlight etc. that AIAs always have.
  • They can be crawled and discovered by search engines.
  • While they don’t need to be developed as fully fledged apps, they still need to be developed as web apps that meet Google’s standards. Whereas AIAs only need to be upgraded from the already existing native mobile app.

Which is better for your e-commerce store?

Naturally there is no right or wrong answer to this. Both PWAs and AIAs have only mitigated their biggest drawbacks but they still maintain their individual traits and have benefits. So it really boils down to what you think will suit your company’s needs and which flaws aren’t deal-breakers.

Ideally, if you have a product online, you need your mobile presence to be exceptional. If you have the bandwidth you could develop your app for Android, iOS as well as web pages. However, if you can’t, then you need to decide where to invest.

Naturally, you may feel inclined to believe that getting a one-size-fits-all PWA may solve the dilemma. This is fine if your brand doesn’t have an extensive online presence and just requires a basic mobile representation. But remember the reason this debate has even surfaced. What native mobile apps, and now AIAs, bring to the table are not just about an optimised web experience on a mobile phone. It is about customer engagement, interaction, retention, and customer relationship building. Which is why it continues to be the preferred choice for e-commerce retailers, more than other industries.

So while these two mediums go neck to neck in the market, what is your choice going to be for your online retail store?

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