Progressive Web Applications got love for the desktop, too

By: Matt Ludwig

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Everything we do and create on our computers seem to benefit from the web. Actually, check that, everything except the majority of desktop applications. Go ahead, peruse your Applications/Programs directory on your computer and think about which ones have a web browser built-in, I’ll wait. And, aside from messaging or email applications, which ones actually authenticate you/themselves in any secure way? Or ever?

This is not to suggest that all desktop apps on a computer should be forced to run in the browser, far from it. But the manner in which desktop apps are deployed and installed, the redundancy of version after version needing updates across countless machines requiring more and more hard drive space, and their lack of leveraging any sort of machine learning or web capabilities for an improved UX, leaves us asking the question: why not change the paradigm in which desktop apps are built?

Desktops are ignorant; long live the desktop.

Desktop apps as we know them today for the common/average user are insecure, unintelligent, and lack future-focused UX. The majority of current desktop apps lack the ability to communicate with you directly (ex: push notifications), don’t really learn from your usage and adapt the UI to better suit your needs, or in any way leverage the power of machine learning on its cloud storage. Why not?

The bar for how all software (desktop or web) behaves has to account for these new expectations equally. Desktop apps should have an inherent data security model, app-level notifications, and leverage the power of the Web in some way. Web app companies, Web Browsers, and certainly Users have all come to expect these traits. So why haven’t desktop apps seen some love here, too?

Progressive Web Apps - now in desktop flavors!

While primarily gaining attention as the future of mobile app solutions, a Progressive Web Application (PWA) should be considered just as much for the desktop experience. I love the idea of simply “saving” a URL to my laptop, clicking on it, and having it launch like any other desktop app I installed via CD once upon a time. Moreover, with Chromebooks rising with the secular tailwinds for common retail and business uses as the laptop d’jour, this reality is getting closer with every passing quarter.

Customers should expect a desktop app to notify them directly, not their inbox.

Why can’t my desktop apps be more communicative? For example, why can’t these applications themselves provide me with a notification when something needs my attention? Our mobile apps do it; our messaging services do it; our teammates, partners, heck- even our spouses walk up to us and do it! So why can’t our desktop apps? When someone I’m collaborating with has completed their portion of the work; when the app itself wants to inform or show me about a feature it can do that may help me (because it has learned on its own about the contents of the work) - why can’t my desktop app do that? Why does our inbox need to be the go-between in that communication? Google Docs on my Android device can tell me itself, so can my father’s iPhone when new pictures/videos of his grandchild have synced…. There is no inbox interaction required in either scenario, and both have exceptionally high levels of re-engagement and User satisfaction.

When was the last time you considered your data’s security when opening Excel?

It seems that collectively, we care more about making sure that little green lock icon is in the URL bar when we buy shoes than we do about any of the access or data integrity of the financial and planning data in our business-critical spreadsheet software that we use daily. If we’re truly being honest with ourselves, we should acknowledge that there should be more to a desktop app’s intrinsic security than your office WiFi password.

What about the local storage security of your company-issued laptop?- not sure. Do you have any revision history on that file being passed around for the presentation to the bank for the Small Business Loan?- no clue. And what’s the plan if your GM leaves her laptop on an airplane, and she’s the only one with the file of your entire donor list that includes personal/banking/postal/web information on it?- don’t know.

These scenarios are far from uncommon, and with a clearly stated strategy to avoid them, building them as a PWA could have massive benefits. With a PWA, all data created/opened with it could be secured (encryption, secure certificate, etc.), revision history could be accessible as a standard feature, and it could remotely freeze access to the account using the app until validated.

How does a PWA change the way users get my app?

Saving a PWA from the browser to your desktop is quick, lightweight, and responsive to any device. It can be pushed to the customer in the form of a native/browser message, or simply as a hyperlink within the web page itself. In doing this, a nominal amount of files, instructions, and assets would, in turn, be downloaded to the computer. However, no multi-gigabyte download would be necessary and no install wizard/package handler would be required or even appropriate. Hard disk spaces on lower cost machines wouldn’t need to be huge, and in the end, the entire experience from discovery to launch should be seconds, not minutes or hours. Yes, the application would be powered by the browser at its core, but none of this would be felt (or even noticed), as the application would be projected full screen with whatever ‘chrome’ the application supplied. It would be much like when Photoshop runs in its core C++; Users don’t know that’s going on or even care- they just use it.

So, having some core requirements of your next version of desktop software UX to include push notifications, the power of server side learning, and a data security model seems pretty reasonable. Seeing a PWA strategy as a clear option for how your organization handles its much needed desktop app responsive design and/or a legacy update could also be the key to bringing back the desktop experience love your customers expect, too. Wondering how this may be possible for your organization? Let’s talk.