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New Chrome beta feature looks to make web apps as powerful as native ones

Michael Simon | Feb. 6, 2017
Progressive Web Apps in Chrome give users the advantages of a native app but without needing to visit the Play Store to download anything

Chrome users have been able to add homescreen shortcuts for their favorite websites for years, letting you quickly jump to a site without having to navigate the bookmarks folder, but they’ve always been just that: fancy links. With the latest Chrome beta, Google wants them to be something far greater.

Called Progressive Web Apps, they promise to offer the best of both worlds, allowing users to experience the power of a Google Play Store app without needing to go through a download or update process. “It loads quickly, even on flaky networks, sends relevant push notifications, has an icon on the home screen, and loads as a top-level, full screen experience," Google says.

The concept has been around since 2015, but it only just making it available in the beta version of Chrome for Android. How it works is simple: When you visit a Progressive Web App, you’ll be able to save it your homescreen like before (via a new Add Shortcut option), except now it won’t just be a fancy link. It will appear in your app drawer alongside everything else you’ve downloaded from the Play Store, and it will function just like a native app would, with the same settings, notifications, and subscriptions that you would find in a Play Store app.

progressive web apps

Progressive Web Apps act just like native apps, except you add them to your phone through Chrome.

You’re not even technically running them in Chrome. Once installed, Progressive Web Apps launch independently of the browser and work even when there isn’t an Internet connection. Updates are done silently in the background, they scale to any screen, and most importantly, they feel like a native app. As Google writes in a blog post:

“This new Add to Home screen feature is one more step in our journey to empower developers to build the best possible experience for their users, and we are committed to ensuring the same mechanisms for installing Progressive Web Apps are available to all browsers on Android.”

If you want to test them out, you can download Chrome Canary, Google’s beta version of Chrome, in the Play Store. Then, navigate to chrome://flags, find the #enable-improved-a2hs experiement, and tap the Enable button. (Thanks for the tip, Android Police!) Then, when you visit one of Progressive Web Apps, you’ll be able to add it to your phone and play around with it. There aren’t too many sites available right now, but you will find a decent smattering of popular apps like Polymail, Flipboard, and the Financial Times.


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