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How Google injects speed into the mobile web

A technology called progressive web apps is making websites less pokey on your phone. It's proving its worth with Twitter and Lancome.

Google is pushing for a faster mobile web experience.
Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

Google has tried for years to rehabilitate the web on your phone -- and it now has evidence it says shows the effort is paying off.

When you're on your phone, tapping that link in Facebook to a news story or opening the browser to look up movie times can be a wince-inducing process. Even on a fast network with a high-end phone, the web today can be painfully slow and hard to use.

A key part of fixing that is a programming movement called progressive web apps, or PWAs, that Google helped develop and that it's now promoting at its Google I/O developer conference. With PWAs, using the web can be a lot more like using a native app. Websites load fast, work even when there's no network connection, and notify you when a message arrives.

One big example: the new Twitter Lite website that arrived for mobile devices in April. People use it 50 percent more than the earlier version, and when they do, they view 60 percent more pages, Google says. The new website loads 30 percent faster, and people ditch it 10 percent less.

It's an important development for easier access to the internet. The web, controlled by no single company, weakens barriers between different territories in the tech world. Whether you're on Microsoft's Windows computers or Apple's Macs or Google's Android phones, you still browse the internet. But if the web sucks, it can't lift us above those divisions.

The web helps open the door to new areas in computing -- virtual reality, augmented reality, cars, smart TVs, voice-operated speakers with video screens like Amazon's new Echo Show. The web levels the playing field, making it easier for new innovators to gain a foothold. And if you want to switch from a Mac to a Windows PC or vice-versa, the web smooths your way.

Google's "progressive" approach

Don't expect to dump your native apps for progressive web apps. But do expect them to spread.

"The modern mobile web has gone mainstream," said Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, the Google vice president leading Chrome browser work at Google. Roy-Chowdhury unveiled new progressive web app plans at Google I/O on Wednesday.

At the show, he's announcing three steps to try to make PWAs work better. Google's Workbox developer tool is designed to help programmers build PWAs, and its Lighthouse service to test those apps is now built directly into Chrome itself. Last, Google has finished Polymer 2.0, a collection of code that developers can use for a related technology called web components.

Twitter loves PWAs

Twitter is a big progressive web app fan. If you visit mobile.twitter.com with your phone, you can try it for yourself.

Twitter Lite looks similar to the native Twitter app. On Android, it asks if you want to add its icon to your home screen, a move that downloads components for a richer experience and faster launch times.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

With a compact 400 kilobyte download size, Twitter Lite is just 2.5 percent the size of the Android app, Twitter said. That's an important consideration for people using slow networks or paying by the byte. It's also easier on phone batteries than the native version, according to the company.

And it fires up quickly -- several seconds faster than the native app, once you've created a home screen icon for it. They're easier to install, too, since all you do is open the web site. It installs its full abilities automatically in the background as you use it.

Chrome and Firefox have built in the foundations for progressive web app technology. Microsoft is building it into its Edge browser -- and into Windows 10 and the Windows Store, moves that should help encourage programmers to embrace PWAs. Illustrating the openness advantages of the web, Microsoft will add PWAs to the Windows Store even without developers having to submit them.

Apple lags

Among major browser makers, Apple is a step behind. That means the full PWA experience isn't an option today on iPhones, in particular because Apple requires other browsers like Chrome and Firefox to use Apple's own browser foundation on its iOS-powered devices.

Apple didn't respond to a request for comment.

But even on iOS, app developers are taking what steps they can toward progressive web apps. French perfumier Lancome needed a better e-commerce system for mobile devices and pondered writing a native app, but decided on PWA instead since it expected few people to bother with downloading, installing and launching a sales app.

The result, according to Google, was 53 percent more people using the mobile website on iOS. On all mobile devices, people were 17 percent more likely to take an action like actually buying something, according to Google's stats.

You might not have a particular passion for Lancome's profitability. But everybody likes technology that responds quickly. So chances are good that even if you don't know how somebody's app was built, you'll like PWAs as much as Lancome.

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