The future of communications apps is on the web

Paul Kinlan

SMS is dying. WhatsApp, Line, WeChat, SnapChat and many others are making it easier to talk to friends, families and groups. A common feature across these apps is: They are all on native platforms and are on the web only to drive users to their native app install pages.

WeChat "web interface"

I have spoken to a lot of developers about why their apps are only on native platforms, and to users about the features that they need and it comes to several key areas: Installability for permanence, engagement via push notifications, ability to bootstrap the social graph via the phone’s contacts and “it’s where the users are”. The web for a lot of developers is just a tool to drive users to your installation page in the store.

But what if you didn’t have to convert your user into an installed user, your user’s are already a real user the minute they land on your page?

2015 is the first year where the web stops being just a funnel to an app install page. 2015 is the year where the web is an accelerant of growth.

The web in 2015 will offer developers and users two huge benefits:

  • Increased methods for engagement  — at the heart of it, the technology is in the browser today and the near future that means we can offer the same features as a native experience.
  • Low friction for user acquisition — given a link, a new user could be using the app within seconds, instead of having to go to a market, wait for the download, and then for the app install to happen.

There are a number of features that users expect an app to be able to perform for it to be useful:

  • Presence — a user must have the confidence that a web based communications app lives on your device. If the user wants, it shouldn’t just be a link the user has to open in the browser to start using. It should launch like all apps on your device: from the home screen.
  • Persistence — a user must have the confidence that a web based communications apps will be available to work wherever they are. If there is no internet connection, it must still load and present all previous communication and message creation tools.
  • Integration — a user must have the confidence that they will never miss anything. Their friend sends them a message, it should notify them of the status via notification exactly as they expect irrespective of if the browser window is open or closed.
  • Media Access — a user expects to be able to communicate in mediums other than plain text, they should be able to access the camera, the photo gallery and audio.

The question is: the web is ephemeral with pages being born when a URL is opened and dying when the user closes the browser and has little to no access to the hardware, how can you get the **Presence, Persistence, Integration, Media Access (It’s been noticed that an acronym for this is A PIMP) required to build a next generation communications app?

Answer: Service Worker and the recent additions to the web platform.

  • Presence — Web App Manifest gives you the entry point into your web app and defines how it appears when installed on the system and registration of a Service Worker (even a Service Worker that does nothing) means that your web app can live in the background asleep and only to be woken when the device needs it to be.

  • Persistence — A Service Worker registration can control and manage every request that comes through the web app, this gives an unprecedented level of control, we can store the UI and logic permanently and cache the data in the app locally, sync back up from the server if required.

  • Integration — The most interesting area. You will, via Service Worker, be able to manage push messaging to your app. Think of this as telecoms signaling. Your web app can be asleep before being woken up by the devices push messaging service to process the data in the payload. From here you could choose to synchronise data in the background so it is fresh and available to the user when they next open the app, or trigger a notification to alert the user that they need to take action.

  • Media Access — WebRTC has brought us access to the users microphone and camera (with permission) and also a real-time bridge directly to the people we want to talk to. Services like FaceTime and Skype are entirely possible in the browser.

At the core, we have fixed many of the big issues. Today you can go and build WhatSnapChap entirely on the web and it can compete with the majority of communications apps today but there are some areas that still need to be improved:

  • Contacts Access — Many communications apps have access to your address book either so you can send a link to them directly via SMS or email, or so that function can be delegated to the service and used to find other users on their service that you know.
  • Ubiquity — Your site will be accessible by anyone who can hit the URL, you have to be happy with that fact that not everyone will be able to use every feature of your app, but they should still be able to access it. Maybe you don’t have push notifications for Gingerbread users on Android browser, but they should still be able to read messages that were synced from a server.
    It’s a choice you will have to make.
  • Payments — Web apps aren’t yet built into the devices payments platforms so as a developer you have to integrate many third party payments systems, this can present a burden to the developer but also can confuse the user, however when considering the American audience that I asked, Payments weren’t a large feature.

The web that we had yesterday was never capable of even trying to take on the capabilities of a native application. In 2015 the technology is there. Service Worker opens up a new range of experiences and combined with the basic properties of the web provides a vastly smoother user on-boarding experience.

Can we build a SnapChat? Yes, absolutely.*

Paul Kinlan

Trying to make the web and developers better.

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