Google emits tools to make cross-platform HTML apps less tragic

Lots and lots of data dumped online plus keys to escape browsers

Chrome Dev Summit At the Chrome Dev Summit in San Francisco, California, on Monday, Google took another stab at making HTML-based apps less of a crapshoot.

In a tag-team keynote, Ben Galbraith, director of the Chrome Web Platform, and Dion Almaer, developer relations lead, revisited the nearly decade-long effort to make web development more like native development in terms of performance and user experience. They reprised last year's evangelism of Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), a term for websites that load quickly, operate offline, and are engaging.

Developers who implement PWAs, the pair insisted, are seeing great results. Travel site Trivago, they said, had built a PWA and has seen a 150 per cent increase in user engagement and 97 per cent increase in conversions. And now that both WebKit – the foundation of Apple Safari – and Microsoft Edge, as well as Google Chrome and Mozilla's Firefox, have committed to implementing service workers, an API needed to run web apps offline, such apps could become more common.

"I don't think I've ever seen so much enthusiasm for a single diff," said Galbraith in a remark lost on non-developers.

Compared to native mobile and desktop apps, web apps tend to be unpredictable. There are few fixed conventions about how code should behave, and they are rendered in all sorts of mobile browsers, so there's a lot of variation, which can lead to confusion. The consequence for web developers is that people abandon web apps or never try them in the first place. That's not a desirable state of affairs. Web apps – written in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript – are supposed to be an easy platform-agnostic alternative to building, releasing, and maintaining native apps for both iOS and Android. If people simply aren't using HTML applications, it's a dead-end approach.

Having some stake in making the web a happy place – because happy users are more receptive to ads and spending – Google debuted two initiatives to improve the uneven user experience in web apps through more informed web development.

The Chrome User Experience Report aims to provide developers with information about how web apps perform in the wild, in the form of aggregate performance metrics. Google likens it to its HTTPS Transparency Report, but to convey app performance and user experience data rather than security data.

The report takes the form of a public dataset of app performance measurements, published to Google BigQuery, that represent how users experience the 10,000 top websites. It includes page load metrics, specifically First Paint, First Contentful Paint, DOMContentLoaded, and onload. Eventually, it may incorporate additional data.

Armed with this information, web developers can get a better sense of how their apps measure up.

Google is also introducing a mechanism called Trusted Web Activity that allows developers to provide content from their own websites – signified through Google Digital Asset Links – in Android apps without the baggage of an embedded browser.

Almaer suggested that those wishing to incorporate content from sites they control might not want to frame it with a browser toolbar.

Trusted Web Activity thus provides an alternative to the Android WebView API for presenting vetted assets. It will be made available through Chrome's canary and developer channels soon, and other browsers eventually will be able to incorporate such content through APIs in the Android Support Library. Why bother? Because you think you can craft a more compelling app experience away from browser conventions.

The final implementation may include requirements intended to enforce app quality: a Google spokesperson said content embedded via a Trusted Web Activity requires service worker support to ensure the content never fails to load.

Google also introduced a new authentication mechanism called One-Tap Sign-Up and Sign-In, a way to create an account and sign-in to a website with a single tap. The mechanism uses tokens tied to a Google Account, without the need for a password or Facebook login. ®

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