Apple goes back to the future with web apps

Apple's about to introduce Service Worker support in Safari. So, what are Service Workers, and why might they matter to you or your enterprise?

Apple, Safari, iOS, macOS, Mac, iPhone, Web Applications, Service Workers, Advanced
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Apple's about to introduce Service Workers in Safari 11.1. So, what are Service Workers, and why might they matter to you or your enterprise?

Web apps unleashed

First introduced in Safari Technology Preview 46, Service Workers allow background scripts to power offline web applications and should make it possible (for example) for developers to build Web apps that can work even when offline.

This may mean web services you can save to your Home screen like any other app, use of the camera from within a web page, background sync and other ways to make web apps that will work online or offline.

They are part of an industrywide initiative to enable developers to build Progressive Web Applications, browser-based apps that can also work offline thanks to Service Workers' ability to cache data for offline use.

Apps for everyone

One advantage of this approach is that it should enable developers to build cross-platform apps (including, potentially, enterprise-class secure conferencing solutions) that will work across any standards-compliant browser.

When Apple first introduced Service Worker support, it said:

“Offline applications are important to the web. After HTML5 first tried to accommodate them with the Offline Application Cache, the Service Workers specification was created as a successor.

 “This standard describes new APIs focused on using JavaScript to handle resource loading for a web page without network access. While work continues, we’re excited to enable Service Workers by default in this release.”

In related news, Apple is also working on a Web App Manifests specification, a second technology that is required to make Progressive Web Applications a reality on Safari. This carries important information, such as names, descriptions, icons and so on, required to create an app interface.

When you combine Service Workers with Web App Manifests, you can create JavaScript-based apps that can be run from the Home screen and act like apps (ie. with a user interface).

There’s a clear but technical explanation of all of this at Mobiforge.

The App Store goes pro

Some argue that by introducing such support, Apple is changing the politics of iOS development by raising the status of web apps above that of those sold through the App Store.

I don’t really agree with that analysis.

While I do think web apps will replace many of the single-function, relatively simple iOS apps, I also think doing so will raise the status of those apps that are made available via the App Store.

Those complex apps will deliver more functionality than web-based apps — though web-based apps will be far easier to use across platforms, bringing iOS-like utilities to Macs, PCs and elsewhere.

That’s likely an important element to Apple's long-term view around the evolution of computing.

History repeats itself

There’s an element of historical irony to all of this.

In the relatively recent past, Apple’s then CEO, Steve Jobs, argued that there was no need to create support for app development on iOS because iPhones made it possible to run Web 2.0 apps through the Safari browser.

Jobs and co. very quickly saw the sense in abandoning that plan, and the company opened up its then new smartphone platform to developers, creating tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in one move.

One more thing: I’m quite interested in any plans Apple may have to integrate use of such web apps together inside its recently acquired Workflow apps. What kind of functionality might Apple users access by stringing multiple services together, particularly in conjunction with Siri?

Find out more about Service Workers and associated technologies here.

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