Progressive Web Apps versus Android Instant Apps: Which is better for brands?

Much has been made of the fight between mobile apps and the mobile web, but the line between the two is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be.

Broadly speaking, a mobile-friendly or mobile-responsive website is less costly and time-consuming to develop than a native mobile app, and tends to attract a wider audience – it’s quick to access, with no downloading or storage required.

Native mobile apps, meanwhile, tend to offer a better user experience and see more engagement from a dedicated core of users who are loyal enough to download a company’s app and come back to it time and time again.

But in the last couple of years, two hot new contenders have been added to the mix which aim to combine some of the best features of the mobile web and the app world for a better all-round mobile experience. They are: Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), and Android Instant Apps.

Vector graphic of a pair of hands holding a phone, with one finger tapping an icon on its screen.

Image via Google Developers

Both Progressive Web Apps and Android Instant Apps are Google initiatives that put a new spin on the traditional mobile app. Both aim to provide a faster-loading, slimmed-down mobile experience; so you can be forgiven for wondering what exactly the difference is between the two.

In this article I’ll sum up the key features of Progressive Web Apps and Instant Apps, look at the differences between the two, and examine which offers a better proposition for brands who are considering investing in one or the other.

What are Progressive Web Apps?

Andy Favell recently wrote a great piece over on our sister site Search Engine Watch about the latest developments with Progressive Web Apps in the wake of Google I/O. In it, he wrote:

“Progressive Web Apps are a Google innovation designed to combine the best features of mobile apps and the mobile web: speed, app-like interaction, offline usage, and no need to download anything.”

Google’s Developer page about Progressive Web Apps describes PWAs as “user experiences that have the reach of the web and are reliable, fast and engaging”. While at base PWAs are mobile webpages, they are designed to act and feel like apps, with fast loading and offline usage.

This immediately eliminates one of the biggest drawbacks of the mobile web: that mobile web pages depend on an often-shaky data connection that can lead to a poor experience and long, frustrating load times.

Image via Google Developers

Progressive Web Apps can also be saved to a user’s home screen, so that they can be launched with the tap of an icon just like a regular app can.

Google encourages developers to build Progressive Web Apps to an established standard, which when met, will cause Chrome to prompt the user to add the PWA to their home screen.

Brands who have already jumped on the PWA bandwagon include Twitter (whose PWA, Twitter Lite, sees 1 million daily visits from users’ homepage icons), Forbes, Expedia, Alibaba, the Washington Post, and even former native app-only companies like Lyft.

PWAs already offer many traits that we associate with native apps, including push notifications, geolocation, access to device features like the camera and microphone, and as mentioned above, offline working and icons on the home screen.

At the same time, they give brands access to the benefits of the mobile web including easy discoverability and shareability (just send a link), universal access regardless of device (no need to release a separate iOS or Android app – although PWAs don’t quite have full functionality on iOS yet; more on that later), and the ability to bookmark individual links.

This sounds like a very compelling proposition for brands who aren’t sure whether to invest in a mobile site or a mobile app, or who want to significantly improve the experience of their mobile site for users.

So why did Google, after already having developed Progressive Web Apps, go on to launch Android Instant Apps in 2016? What is the difference between the two?

What are Android Instant Apps?

Android Instant Apps are fully-fledged native Android apps that are designed to work in a very specific way. Like Progressive Web Apps (or any mobile site, for that matter) they can be shared via a link, which when opened will give the recipient access to a stripped-down version of the app.

So, in the example that Google used at I/O in 2016, one user could send another a link to the recipe section of the Buzzfeed Video app, who would then be able to open it and access the part of the app that was linked to – in this case, recipe videos – without downloading it.

Screencap via Android Developers on YouTube

If they wanted to access the rest of the app, they would need to then download the full version, but this could be done easily without performing an additional search in the Play store.

Android Instant Apps are designed to be effectively the same as using a regular Android app, to the point where users may not even notice that they are using the feature. The only indicator that they are accessing an Instant App is a simplified app interface.

Apart from Buzzfeed, brands known to be using Instant Apps include The New York Times Crossword, Periscope, Viki (a video streaming service for Asian TV and film), football app Onefootball and video hosting service Vimeo.

Gif of Android Instant apps from various brands displayed on smartphone screens

Some of the brands currently using Android Instant Apps, including Onefootball, Vimeo and The New York Times. Image via Android Developers Blog

Android Instant Apps set out to tackle many of the same problems as Progressive Web Apps: they are designed to launch quickly, provide a user-friendly interface, and avoid cumbersome and data-costly downloads.

The feature is designed as an upgrade to existing Android apps, rather than being an additional app that brands need to develop. This is good news for brands who already have an Android app, and for those who do, upgrading probably seems like a no-brainer.

But for those who might not have an app yet, do Instant Apps make a persuasive enough case by themselves for developing an Android app? Or might they be better off putting their time into developing a Progressive Web App?

Progressive Web Apps versus Android Instant Apps

On an individual feature basis, here is how Progressive Web Apps and Android Instant Apps compare to one another:

Progressive Web Apps Android Instant Apps
App-like interface App-like interface
Offline usage Offline usage
Fast loading Fast loading
No need to download an app/visit the app store No need to download an app/visit the app store

✘ Unless you want to access the full version of the app

Shareable via a link Shareable via a link
Icon on the home screen Icon on the home screen
✘ Lacks integration with some smartphone features (e.g. flashlight, contacts, Bluetooth, NFC) All the features of a native app
✘ Not yet supported by every OS (PWAs can be used on iOS/Safari and Windows/Microsoft Edge but have no offline functionality or push notifications) ✘ Android only
Can be crawled by search engines ✘ Not discoverable by search engines
No need to develop a fully-fledged app

✘ But you do still need to develop a web app that meets Google’s standards

✘ Need to develop a fully-fledged Android app

Unless you already have one, in which case you can just upgrade

In that list, you may have seen some features which especially appeal to you, some which might be deal-breakers and have put you off one option or the other, or some “cons” which aren’t enough of a deal-breaker to put you off.

Point-for-point, however, the two look about equal. So in the interests of settling the debate: which one is the better option for brands?

Which is better for brands: Progressive Web Apps or Android Instant Apps?

Well… Sorry to let you down after you’ve made it this far, but the issue isn’t quite as clear-cut as I’ve framed it to be.

As with the “mobile app versus mobile web” debate, no one option is inherently better than the other (although one can be cheaper or quicker to develop than the other), because it all depends on the needs of your brand and what you want your mobile experience to deliver.

What PWAs and AIAs have done is mitigate some of the biggest drawbacks of the mobile web and mobile apps, respectively, so that it’s possible to almost have the best of both worlds no matter what you decide.

If you’re trying to decide between building a regular mobile site (whether mobile-optimized, mobile-friendly or mobile-first) or a PWA, a Progressive Web App is a no-brainer. And if you already have an Android app (or were going to build one), upgrading to an Instant App would bring a lot of additional benefits.

Image via Android Developers

The lack of iOS support for both is an obvious drawback, although in this respect PWAs just edge out, as Safari is reported to be considering support for Service Workers, the feature that enables PWAs’ offline usage and push notifications. (Chrome, Firefox and Opera all currently support Service Workers, and Microsoft Edge is in the process of developing support).

Ultimately, the best solution might be a combination of several. Google Developer Advocate Dan Dascalescu points out in his article ‘Why Progressive Web Apps vs. native is the wrong question to ask’ that “if you already have a product, you already have an app, a web presence, or both, and you should improve both. If you don’t have a product, then if you have the resources to build native Android + native iOS + web apps, and keep them in sync, go for it.”

If you don’t need Android-specific native features, he reasons, then you can cover your bases with the combination of a PWA and a native iOS app. Though in some cases, building a PWA can lead to increased adoption even on iOS; AliExpress, Alibaba’s answer to eBay, saw an 82% increase in conversion rate on iOS after launching a Progressive Web App.

Progressive Web Apps have been around and available to brands a little longer than Android Instant Apps, so there are a few more use cases and examples of why they work than there are for Instant Apps. Over the next year or so, I predict that we’ll see wider adoption of Instant Apps, but only from those brands who had already developed Android native apps anyway.

Ultimately, for those brands for whom developing a native Android app makes sense, nothing has really changed. Brands who were undecided between investing in mobile web versus a native app may have more reasons to plump for mobile web now that Progressive Web Apps have come along – especially once PWAs have full support in Safari and Microsoft Edge.

I can see PWAs becoming the more widespread choice for brands once they work across all devices, as they truly do combine the best features of mobile web and apps, while also being universally accessible. But they’re not going to eliminate the need for apps entirely.

The upshot of it all is that whether brands adopt Progressive Web Apps or Android Instant Apps, users will get a better experience – and that benefits everyone.

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