Window Shopping: Progressive Web App

When I wrote up my quick notes on ElectronJS, I had the nagging feeling I forgot something. A few days later I remembered: I forgot about Progressive Web Apps (PWA), created by some people at Google who agrees with ElectronJS that their underlying Chromium engine can make a pretty good host for local offline applications.

But even though PWA and ElectronJS share a lot in common, I don’t see them as direct competitors. What I’ve seen on ElectronJS is focused on creating applications in the classic sense. They are primarily local apps, just built using technologies that were born in the web world. Google’s PWA demos showcase extension of online web sites, where the primary focus is on the web site but PWA lets them have a local offline supplement.

Given that interpretation, a computer control panel for an electronics hardware project is better suited to ElectronJS than a PWA. At least, as long as the hardware’s task is standalone and independent of others. If a piece of hardware is tied to a network of other similar or complementary pieces, then the network aspect may favor a PWA interfacing with the hardware via Web USB. Google publishes a tutorial showing how to talk to a BBC micro:bit using a Chrome serial port API. I’m not yet familiar with the various APIs to know if this tutorial used the web standard or if it uses the Chrome proprietary predecessor to the standard, but its last updated date of 2020/2/27 implies the latter.

Since PWA started as a Google initiative, they’ve enabled it in as many places as they could starting with their own platforms like Android and ChromeOS. They are also supported via Chrome browser on major desktop operating systems. The big gap in support are Apple’s iOS platforms, where Apple forbids a native code Chrome browser and more generally any application platforms. There are some technical reasons but the biggest hurdle is financial: installing a PWA bypasses Apple’s iOS app store, a huge source of revenue for the company, so Apple has a financial disincentive.

In addition to Google’s PWA support via Chrome, Microsoft supports PWA on Windows via their Edge browser with both the old EdgeHTML and new Chromium-based versions, though with different API feature levels. While there’s a version of Edge browser for Xbox One, I saw no mention of installing PWAs on an Xbox like a standard title.

PWAs would be worth a look for network-centric projects that also have some offline capabilities, as long as iOS support is not critical.

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