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One morning last week, I ordered an egg sandwich and coffee from the Starbucks app on my phone. Except it wasn’t really an app.
This non-app app is a hybrid of a website and a conventional app, with features of each.
Pinterest, Spotify, YouTube and the news publication Texas Monthly also make what I’ll call a web app — officially it’s a Progressive Web App, but let’s skip that yucky term. I’ll explain how you can try web apps and why you should want to.
Web apps look and function pretty much like the conventional apps for your phone or computer, but they clog less space on your device and are less pushy about surveilling you.
People who make web apps also say they are easier to create and update than conventional apps. Texas Monthly executives told me that’s been a huge benefit to the publication and its readers.
But web apps have been around for years, and most people don’t know they exist. Most companies don’t make web apps, either. I get it. If we already have websites and apps, why do we need something else that’s in between?
I’m a recent convert to web apps, and I hope they will become a bigger part of our technology future.
Why? Because it’s worth questioning the status quo of technology, including apps as we know them.
Apps for our phones, computers and TV sets were the right technology for the 2010s. They are familiar and often great today, too.
But they come with profound downsides, including Big Tech control, privacy compromises and high development costs. It would be healthy if there were palatable alternative paths to our current app system. Web apps might be part of the solution.
Here’s how and why to try web apps
If you have a Windows computer, open the Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge web browser and type Spotify.com into the address bar.
In the upper right, you will see an icon that looks like three building blocks in an L shape (on Edge) or an icon that looks like a computer screen with a downward arrow (on Chrome). If you move your mouse over the icon, the prompt will say “Install Spotify.”
It will download to your computer something like other apps you might have already such as Zoom. But it’s different. It’s a web app.
I have more detailed instructions and other web apps to try below.
At their core, web apps are “the web with an app-like cover,” said Rob Kochman, senior product manager for Google’s Chrome.
Kochman and other web app fans say these apps are less demanding and less intrusive than a conventional app.
The web app for Starbucks, for example, takes up just 429 kilobytes of storage on my phone — or less than 1 percent of the storage taken by the standard Starbucks Android app.
For some of you, storage space isn’t a big deal. But particularly if you have an older or less fancy device, device storage can easily get filled up as you download apps and snap photos.
And by design, once a conventional app is on your phone, it can access your phone’s guts and peek under the hood of your internet network. Web apps are stingier about access, Kochman and other experts told me.
“If you’re worried about installing some app, you’d probably prefer that as a web app,” said a veteran tech executive who helped develop the original technology for web apps. He referred to a web app as “just a website that took all the right vitamins.”
How web apps help the underdog
Caitlyn Perry, senior vice president of digital growth at Texas Monthly, told me that the publication’s conventional apps for smartphones were costly and time consuming to keep updated.
Readers complained that the apps crashed too much and that they didn’t like having to contact a Texas Monthly app partner, not the publication’s customer service, for questions or problems with account passwords or subscriptions in the app.
And because Apple or Google have final approval over any change to a line of software code in a conventional app, it slowed down updates.
Earlier this year, Texas Monthly replaced its conventional smartphone apps with a web app. (I have instructions below to find this web app.)
“PWAs give us more control,” said Emily Allen, Texas Monthly’s senior vice president of audience development. “This is more future proof.”
Allen and Perry said that app crashes have declined by 94 percent and that the number of readers using the app has doubled. Staff make feature changes to the Texas Monthly website, and those tweaks cascade relatively seamlessly to the web app.
There are drawbacks compared to a conventional app, the executives said. Texas Monthly’s web app doesn’t yet have an option to save articles to read when someone isn’t connected to the internet, for example.
What makes web apps annoying and unpopular
It’s difficult to figure out which companies make web apps or find them. There’s not an app store for web apps, although there are some attempts like Store.App and Appscope. They’re not ideal.
Few companies are like Texas Monthly and make a web app instead of conventional smartphone apps. Spotify and YouTube have web apps but still make standard apps, too.
Some technologists told me that Apple has held back web apps by limiting their capabilities for Apple devices. The company has said that’s not true. And this year, Apple added iPhone feature options for web apps.
I’m not saying that you should ditch conventional apps. You can’t, and in many cases, you will want apps. We know how to find them, install them and use them.
What I am encouraging is for you to give web apps a try — if only as a way to open your mind to different tech possibilities. We should keep challenging what can feel like immutable parts of digital life, including apps. We have to keep asking: What if there’s something better?
As I said, one big headache with web apps is they’re hard to find. Most companies don’t make them for their online services.
It’s also a little hard to wrap our minds around something that is kind of like a conventional app but also kind of like a website. Give web apps a shot!
On the Safari browser on your iPhone or iPad, type app.starbucks.com and tap on the share menu button at the bottom — it looks like a square with an upward-facing arrow. Choose the option for “Add to Home Screen.” Click Add at the next screen.
Or on an Android phone, go to the Chrome browser or Google search bar and type app.starbucks.com. Tap the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and choose the option for “Install app.”
The Starbucks web app shows up as an icon on your phone’s home screen. It looks like a conventional app, and it mostly works like one, too. Like a conventional app, the Starbucks web app on your phone knows the location of your closest Starbucks, and you can use your Starbucks Rewards points.
You don’t have to install a web app, but that makes them feel more like standard apps.
You can also follow the same steps for any website on your phone and it will add an icon to your home screen. But if it’s not a web app, this is just a shortcut to the website on your phone. It looks and functions like a website, not an app.
Type YouTube.com into the Chrome or Edge browser for Windows computers.
You’ll see in the upper right an icon that looks like three building blocks in an L shape (on Edge) or an icon that looks like a computer screen with a downward arrow (on Chrome). If you move your mouse over the icon, the prompt will say “Install YouTube” or something similar.
If you say yes, the YouTube web app will be downloaded to your computer and work like other apps on your computer.
As I mentioned above, you can follow these same steps with open.spotify.com to install that company’s web app,
To delete the web app, click the three dots in the upper right of the web app and choose the option for “Uninstall.” Or instead, click the three dots and pick App Settings. In the next screen click the option for “uninstall.”
With an iPhone, search in the App Store for Texas Monthly. That’s the web app, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s not a conventional iPhone app. (Don’t be confused by Texas Monthly’s BBQ Finder app, which is a conventional app and probably delicious.)
Or on an Android phone, go to the Chrome browser and type texasmonthly.com. Tap the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and choose the option for “Install app.”
You can do this on the Chrome browser for your computer, too, and choose the icon in the upper right that looks like a screen with a downward facing arrow.
Try typing Pinterest.com into the web browser on your Android phone or iPhone. Follow the instructions from the Starbucks web app above to install on your home screen. You can also install the Pinterest web app from Chrome on your Windows computers.
Elk.Zone, which is among the collection of websites for the Twitter-like social network called Mastodon
Try going to Elk.Zone from the Safari browser on your iPhone. Tap on the share menu button at the bottom — it looks like a square with an upward-facing arrow — and scroll down to “Add to Home Screen.” Click Add at the next screen.
Several companies have stripped-down versions of their conventional apps that are mostly useful for people with less powerful smartphones, including in emerging markets.
These include Twitter Lite for Android phones (not available in the United States) and Google Maps Go for Android phones. Search for these in the Google Play app.
There’s also the stripped-down version of Uber’s app, which you can find by typing m.uber.com into a Safari or Chrome browser. You can download this Uber web app, too.