The Future of Web
Over the past few years, the most contentious battles in gaming have generally focused on content distribution. This is where many of the most valuable gaming enterprises in the world have built their names (Valve, Roblox), and major IP owners have repeatedly tried to create their own proprietary launchers (Epic Games, Activision Blizzard, EA). In the PC ecosystem, there are countless channels to find, download, and play a variety of games.
This is a stark contrast to the mobile app economy, which is generally viewed as a duopoly controlled by Apple and Google. Each of these tech giants not only has their own hardware, but most importantly control the operating systems that run nearly every mobile device globally (71.63% Android (Google), 27.71% iOS (Apple)).
Current App Distribution Landscape
Through their mobile operating systems, Apple and Google effectively own the software layer for all of their first-party and partnered devices. Partnerships such as Samsung and Huawei are only relevant for Google, as iOS is exclusively featured in Apple devices. Owning the operating system is not just important from a user experience perspective; it also enables both parties to establish their own first-party app marketplaces.
These marketplaces are key drivers of overall mobile revenue for both Apple and Google, with each party’s store taking in tens of billions of dollars each year. As a result, maintaining control over app distribution remains a key focus for both parties. However, there is a key difference in how Apple and Google treat alternative distribution of apps from third-parties.
While Google has allowed for external marketplaces and direct app downloads from the web (known as “sideloading”), Apple has continued to ensure that app downloads are exclusively funneled through their App Store product. Given Apple effectively has complete control over an iOS user, their actions have sparked a number of antitrust lawsuits (e.g., Epic v Apple, EU antitrust action). This is particularly relevant since both platforms currently take a 30% revenue share on app downloads and in-app purchases.
These legal challenges have opened up a couple important questions for Apple:
- How long will Apple be allowed to continue operating their closed garden?
- If Apple is forced to open up their closed garden, what are the optimal solutions for developers to distribute their apps?
While the answer to #1 is still up in the air (there is speculation that there could be an announcement related to iOS 17 at WWDC), we may already have a glimpse into future distribution through the web. If you have an iPhone with Safari as your browser you can test it out yourself. Go to Spotify and click the share icon (square with an arrow pointing up) on the bottom ribbon. If you scroll down, you will see an option to “Add to Home Screen”. Once you click “Add”, you will see a new icon pop up that takes you straight to a web-connected app with a user interface that feels like a native app.
What are PWAs?
API landscape that makes PWAs possible:
- Service Provider API: Enables fast loading (regardless of the network), offline access, push notifications, and other capabilities.
- Cache API: The Cache API is a system for storing and retrieving network requests and their corresponding responses.
- Web Push: Web push notifications are notifications that can be sent to a user via desktop web and mobile web. As of Feb 16 2023, web apps on iOS allow push notifications with iOS 16.4 (WebKit Blog).
- Web Install API: The Web Install API allows users to download apps directly from the web. It also gives developers the ability to push updates to the app through the web.
How do PWAs perform against native apps:
- Alibaba: The PWA version of the site saw a 76% increase in conversions and a 14% increase in the number of monthly active users compared to the native app. Additionally, the PWA version significantly reduced the bounce rate.
- Twitter: Twitter reported that the PWA version of the site saw a 65% increase in pages per session and a 75% decrease in bounce rate compared to the native app.
- The Washington Post: The PWA version of the site has seen a 63% increase in engagement and a 20% increase in ad viewability compared to the native app. The PWA version also allows users to access the site offline and provides push notifications, which has helped improve user engagement. (Web.dev)
PWAs' Impact on Gaming
Native applications have traditionally been the best way to distribute and consume content. This is due to the infrastructure being built for native experiences and not other mediums. With PWAs there are distribution, discoverability, and accessibility improvements that could be significant tailwinds for gaming.
Benefits for Gaming:
- Lightweight and Fast: With PWAs, users don’t need to download full applications or install updates. PWAs have the ability to execute most native app functions and all developers need to do is upload the app or updates to the web server where all of the data will be pulled from in real time. This replaces the need to have all of the data downloaded locally.
- Wider Distribution: PWAs work with any browser that is compliant with the appropriate web standards. This allows games to be compatible with most devices that offer browser support. It also allows developers to build once and ship everywhere. There is no need to support your application for every ecosystem and instead just build for the web and access far more distribution opportunities.
- Works Offline: PWAs allow users to view a website without launching an app. The result is that users will be able to use PWAs from home screens and operate them offline without any problems. PWAs can either store data locally, use the Cache API, or IndexedDB to make sure the application is available while offline. PWAs use of “service workers” to help manage this process is a core API development that makes PWAs valuable.
- PWAs Offer Better Discoverability: Web apps are more discoverable than native apps; it's a lot easier and faster to visit a website than to install an application, and you can also share web apps by sending a link. Sending direct links can significantly help increase user engagement and drive more traffic to the app.
Takeaway: PWAs offer a potential paradigm shifting technology that could allow games and apps to circumvent the need for a traditional app store. Benefits like offline mode, increased distribution and discoverability, and lightweight applications offer immense benefits for developers and consumers.