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Why progressive web apps (PWAs) may ultimately benefit Google more than Microsoft

Google and Microsoft are fierce competitors in AI, productivity tools, search and more. Additionally, Google's refusal to bring its first-party apps to Windows phone was a strategic blow that contributed to the platform's poor adoption.

Given this troubled history and present rivalry, it's ironic that Microsoft's Jeffrey Burtoft, principal program manager for partner app experiences, reached out to Google to forge a partnership in developing progressive web app (PWA) standards. Google had introduced service workers or scripts that run in the background, into its web-app solution that reduced the system's resource usage, allowing PWAs to work efficiently. Microsoft was intrigued by Google's approach which seemed superior to its own Universal Windows web-app strategy.

Microsoft had been investing in a Universal Windows web-app bridge called Westminster, which it merged with Google's PWA solution after the two joined forces. Though this partnership is seemingly the best chance Microsoft has to close the app gap, it may profit Google even more.

Related: PWAs, the great equalizer

Microsoft's PWA potential

Microsoft needs PWAs, Centennial apps and the whole of the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) to succeed. Ironically, the company's historic lack of support for its ecosystem is counterintuitive to the resources it possesses and the dire state in which that ecosystem has languished. Microsoft's reaching out to Google for a partnership likely reflected a sense of desperation for a strategy that it realizes is a "Catch 22" that would benefit its own ecosystem while enhancing Android's and Chrome's growing threat to Windows.

PWAs could help Microsoft populate the Microsoft Store with a plethora of apps. Granted, some app categories don't translate well to PWAs, and PWAs may not have the quality or features of dedicated apps. Still, if the strategy is successful, PWAs would greatly benefit cellular PCs, Microsoft's Surface Go LTE category (and OEM devices it inspires) and Microsoft's rumored Project Andromeda pocket PC category.

As Microsoft pushes Always Connected PCs (ACPCs), it is forced to highlight their laptop productivity aspects since the touch-centric mobile platform (even for 2-in-1s with detachable keyboards) is weak. Surface Go has the same weakness. PWAs provide hope that the whole of the Windows 10 ecosystem would benefit from them, particularly since Windows 10 treats them as native universal apps. Such an outcome would make Microsoft's connected Windows PCs, particularly small mobile-focused devices like Surface Go or Surface Andromeda, more relevant.

Google's PWA play

Android is the most used mobile platform in a mobile-centric personal computing world. PWAs would benefit Google by reducing a user's need to download apps that consume device space and are frequently ignored once downloaded.

Furthermore, the mobile web and search are still highly frequented to accomplish tasks despite app stores boasting millions of apps. PWAs, which combine websites with the UI and other benefits of dedicated apps, optimize on this web-centric user behavior. Google's search and A.I. fortés could help it make PWAs in the Android and Chrome ecosystem a quick, seamless and rich experience.

Additionally, if PWAs become a "standard" computing experience, Chromebook efficiency and appeal could be boosted. Though not as popular outside of the U.S. education sector, Chromebooks are a growing segment. PWAs as part of Chrome make those devices even more practical.

PWAs' double-edged success

Image Credits: David Breyer

Image Credits: David Breyer

As personal computing becomes more connected, Google browser-based Chromebooks and web-based tools make its connected personal computing strategy appear forward-looking in some regards. Combined with Android's dominance of mobile, PWA's app-web solution fundamentally enhances Google's personal computing strategy by making web experiences on millions of popular Android phones and Chromebooks behave like native apps.

Microsoft is reportedly delaying Surface Andromeda to refine the OS and bolster the Windows ecosystem with PWAs. Though PWAs may be Microsoft's best chance to close the app gap, they're also Google's tool to make Chromebooks more relevant and Android and Chrome more powerful.

With the current ecosystem imbalance favoring Google, one can only hope Microsoft does its best to get as much value out of this PWA race as possible.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

33 Comments
  • Here's how I see this: It's baffling to me that a company that posted ~$11 billion in revenue last quarter still has trouble finding ways of getting developers on board with their platforms. Microsoft is a hugely-successful company, and its lack of app development interest from devs just doesn't fall in line with that type of company. Sure, this move of Google partnership with PWA's may sway towards Google in the long-run. But it also still gives Microsoft an eye into the development tree. As a current dev, having to develop for just ONE platform, rather than iOS, Android, and Windows just makes sense. It's simple, lightweight, and easy to troubleshoot, as it is ported from one platform to another. I just hope that Microsoft's next jab into the mobile marketplace is more-thought out rather than just a "wait-and-see" strategy, even if that means holding back Andromeda for a year. (Rumors are pointing that this will be the case for 2019 launches.) But, if done correctly, Microsoft can do what no other company can at this point: Bring apps to ALL platforms with UWP, not just one form factor over another. This Microsoft junkie is truly hoping and wanting to see the next iteration.
  • I can't understand why they don't just create their own app store for Android apps, and make an ARM based app store connected to the already working Windows store. Build Android runtime into Windows 10 Arm, so that applications run natively. Allow users to install apps from other resources, and then we can all install Google apps on our own....... Google will see this, and perhaps decide to support the decision, and maybe actually support windows..........it's not like this isn't possible already. I can run Android on my Surface a number of ways. Not only that, they had tried this on the past with windows phone, and actually had it working. They can use some of their billions of dollars to pay all the app developers to upload their existing. Apk to Ms store, and bam, app gap gone!
  • So, hunderts of Android low-quality Fart Apps on Windows? No, t hank you.
  • "I can run Android on my Surface a number of ways" name one that is legal by all means. You got yourself an answer right there.
  • Here's one, Android Studio.
  • Is PWA so much better then UWP?? Noob question here.
  • Neither are better than NWO.
  • I don't even know what that is, hahaha
  • From a native developer perspective, no.
    From a service developer perspective, absolutely 100% yes. Native developer builds software that makes the most of the OS/Hardware it's running on. Service developer will need to surface their service offering on many different operating systems / hardware, usually as an app. It doesn't make economic sense to invest the resources for every OS vendors application stack, if you can use industry standard methods of extending the browser. Then it's back to browser wars. Whose browser supports more of the features needed for PWA, which as the article points out, could give a leg up to Chrome / Android.
  • Well, what I consider is that Google's efforts would be much more widely accepted and MS knows this. That's why I believe they reached out to create a partnership. Working hand in hand will allow MS to get PWAs to work well within the Edge browser and the OS as a whole.
  • For me, as a part-time app developer, I found myself that I prefer the native application even more. Sure, I still prefer the flexibility that many web technologies provides these day. However, I still see that native application is still a long way to go. Accessing hardware performance still required native software, and web technology cannot completely replace the native one. P.S. I am a bit bias, but I still found that developing only 1-2 programming language that is stable enough is WAY better than multi-standard in Node.JS family. I felt headache when I tried to work on Ionic application development ecosystem because of messy syntax of JS in general, rather than developing application in Xamarin.
  • I'm not following the logic Jason. Google - which has a monopoly in non-ios mobile apps with android - benefits MORE than anyone else with PWAs (which are essentially web pages with background services & access to actual device)?!?!? Sorry not buying it. While PWAs might allow $49 usable android devices the lack of 4G data & storage still doesn't help vs an actual android app in many of these areas where $49 is a premium device. Some of these PWAs really take up tons of temp space on your device (use weather.com PWA for example for a few weeks and post back). What sucks about chromebooks is something like this (first hand told to me this week) - a HS student in summer school had his (often unsupervised) class disconnect their chromebook wifi, thus making the class unable to do anything thus dismissed a few hours early.
  • If their work required internet, it didn't matter what playform they were using. Google docs are available offline on Chromebooks, they must have been doing something more intensive that required research or other online activities. Where Google wins here is if native Windows development is halted for PWA development. Now Chromebooks are on equally footing with Windows.
  • I agree that PWA may benefit Google more because it isn't really a standard; it's more of a "web" standard. This means that everything is in motion and is up for interpretation. Under that scenario, Microsoft would have to innovate faster and release faster than Google to get the upper hand. Usually the most popular platform wins in the end anyway because smaller developers will only have resources to test and ensure the product runs on a few popular devices. Microsoft sill needs to get people off of Windows 7. Is Microsoft expecting people to pay for windows 10 with its poor app support or switch to android for free and get premium app support?
  • Yep. I've seen so many fubars in chromebooks and ipads (even mac laptops but less so), as these devices were pushed upon ignorant school system IT admins who know nothing about actual classroom utility.
  • A $49 device is likely to perform worse running a PWA than it does running native compiled code. That is part of the reason why I don't care about PWA. Microsoft has a few, like the Sway UWP app, and it's terrible. It's basically a browser frame with a page inside.
  • Of F-n course🙄🙄🙄
  • Not worth my time. Web is the future. PWA is a fad. Staying focused.
  • Just educate people what Google is doing behind the scenes and some might wake up.
  • Yeah I completely disagree with you Jason. PWA definitely will benefit windows way more than Google. Once the major apps that 99% of people use há e decent PWA versions the barrier for people to start using Andromeda and other small windows devices will be gone. That is ultimately the main thing Microsoft needs to get in the mobile market. Google needs a proper desktop device and PWA will not help the rubbish chromebooks in any meaningful way. So yeah Microsoft fenefits way more.
  • Why? If the applications are the same in Windows and Android... why would I run them on a Windows machine and pay Microsoft $100 for the privilege?
  • Yeah, Linux emulation is coming to chromebooks, which helps, but it's not going to make them capable of heavy tasks - some light photo editing or office products at most. The bridge for chrome to power apps and games, is currently steeper than the bridge to light mobile apps for windows. 95% of what android does can be replicated on PWA. PWA will help chrome in one powerful way however - android apps are generally optimised for smartphones. PWA is platform agnostic. So PWAs will help google transition from android, to chromeOS, whilst getting rid of those annoying tiny smartphone interfaces. And that is important - but it's not quite as important as light mobile apps are for windows.
  • It's just sad that with all the potential in UWP, MSFT had to partner with Google to bring PWA for Windows. I guess PWA is going to remain slow in development for the coming years but yes, it eventually benefits Google. Anything with a strong mindshare and developer base will always have strong presence in consumer market. Google is already on top while MSFT is looking at ways to connect with ppl instead of winning ppl with Windows ecosystem.
  • Why does Microsoft need apps for Windows 10? It has retreated from mobile and knows there is no way back... We don't have an app gap anymore we are all on Android or iOS... Better to concentrate on what they know which is enterprise and gaming...
  • PWAs level the playing field and make it possible for Linux, WebOS or some new OS to grow in popularity. In years to come both MS and Google may come to regret architecting their own demise in the devices space.
  • Man Microsoft needs to stop playing and make that amazing looking device on here. I would not have to use an Android device anymore as long as the app ecosystem keeps growing.
  • I think ultimately it benefits Microsoft more. Think about this - which apps cannot be made into PWAs? Power apps, games, apps with richer functionality. Which OS ecosystem has more of these type of apps, that will need to run native? The vast majority of popular apps on Android can be replicated via PWA. Whereas the majority of what already exists on windows cannot. I think for Google, the biggest benefit lies in it's similar to Windows 10 plans - either the move away from android to ChromeOS, or to Fuschia. PWA's like with Windows, will make that transition easier, and the new OS less dependant on form restricted Android apps. What remains to be seen, is how Chrome or Fuschia can boost it's power app ecosystem, that even with android apps, is currently as weak as Windows in light mobile apps. Linux emulation helps, much like windows on arms win32 emulation - but it's incapable of the raw power those apps might demand. Unless processor speed advances a lot, it's more of a stopgap solution. Both Windows on ARM and ChromeOS will have to push for native development in feature rich software. But getting the PWA ball rolling, will put mobile light applications aside, and allow them to put in that focus.
  • Phones apps will be seen looking back as a temporary transition to enable utility of smartphones. Back in 2008, when smartphones came out, web pages were designed for desktop screen sizes and resolutions. These web pages were too cumbersome to use on a tiny phone. Plus, they really couldn't leverage the phone hardware being in a sandbox. HTML made steady progress and webapps were born to address phone screens and some were able to get at sensors like GPS. I really see PWAs as more of this progress on webapps. I don't really see it as a big bang new thing. So now webapps can run stuff in the background and lose the browser window frame. Google has always been all about webapps from day one. They deserve credit for making some of the best webapps in the world (e.g. gmail, google maps). PWA is really more of the same stuff Google been doing for the last decade or so. The PC has also been taken over by webapps. Just ask yourself when you turn on your PC, how much of the time is spent in the browser. Probably most of the time. Eventually it will go that way for phones. The native apps were just a transition phase to give time for webapps to mature and be designed for small form factors. People seem to think they absolutely need such and such apps, but that type of thinking will go away. We will just use the web on all devices. There will still be a place for native apps. Anything that is processing intensive, lot of file I/O, and needs access to hardware resources will still be a candidate for a native app. For example, video editing, multi-track recording/mixing software, studio art, camera app, and maybe apps that are not necessarily demanding, but you use every day so want the best performance (e.g. mail, calendar, phone, etc.). The web didn't kill Windows on the desktop. PWAs will just be more of the same. I see PWAs though benefitting Microsoft more though. Microsoft will be on better footing to get things done on the Andromeda device. This will make the Andromeda device more compelling as a 3-in-1 device. 3-in-1 devices will be a fast growing device category in the next five years. Microsoft has the best shot in the 3-in-1 device market due to their dominance in desktop. I think people will choose a 3-in-1 device based on the OS it runs in desktop mode.
  • Smartphones didn't come out in 2008. Your lack of proper perspective is baffling.
  • But google doesnt need any rival they because tgey know they will loose they are more towards monopoly.
  • Microsoft is stupid. They needed to focus on WPF and .NET for Desktop development, and UWP for Mobile and as a bridge between Windows and Mobile Platforms. This is what Apple is doing with macOS and iOS APIs in 2019. What Microsoft should have done with UWP. Just like they did (with Handoff, Continuity, SMS/Call Relay, etc.) what Microsoft should have done with Windows Mobile and Windows 10. Let them compliment each other - don't try to force the same platform on every form factor. That only ends up being a thousand compromises that compromise the user experience and cohesiveness of the platform on specific devices for users Microsoft wouldn't know a good strategy if it slapped them in the face. Dead End Ecosystem filled with holes.
  • Microsoft still don't understand charging for OS is not how you make money. That's why windows phone died and that's why windows 10 is not half of android. Microsoft is slowly dieing on consumer front and eventually business will adopt google OS. They really need to split consumers division like HP.
  • It benefits more to whom makes more use of it. Microsoft not having a mobile platform and having a web-browser already on all non-mobile devices will not benefit from this. ...unless they are to release Windows 10 on some mobile devices. They, themselves cannot really rely on building PWAs for all three major platforms. Any other scenario would still benefit Google more.