Why is Apple making big improvements to web apps for iPhone?


Apple appears to be up to something very interesting with Safari and its support for Web apps on iPhones. It is working on features that seem to make such applications work a lot more like native apps.

This may be good news for any application publisher who wants to offer apps and services to Apple’s mobile platforms outside of the App Store.

What’s the story?

The recently reported changes in Safari 16.4 for iPad OS 16.4 and iOS 16.4 are both available in the first beta.

Safari gains more than 135 features in this release, including tempting sounding enhancements such as Import Maps, Media Queries, and more. But the real enhancements are around Home Screen web apps.

Now, iPhones have been able to add a website icon to their Home screen since the device first appeared. Those icons became Home Screen web apps, so you can summon the service with a tap, and it will operate just like any other app, separate from Safari.

During the first year of the iPhone’s existence, Apple adopted the position that all third-party apps on the device be web apps,; that changed when the App Store was born.

So, what’s new?

What’s new now is that Web Push support is being added to Home Screen web apps. This will let developers send push notifications to users via Push API, Notifications API, and Service Workers.

It might work like this: You are logged into a website that provides a service and you choose to make it a Home Screen Web app. Now that app/site can send you personal notifications concerning your service, such as when a new feature has been added or new products made available.

Just like elsewhere on mobile, users get to agree or reject permissions for these interactions. And those permissions can be managed on a per-app basis in Notification Settings, and handled by Apple’s Focus tool, so you can block out those you don’t want to hear from.

So, now we have web apps that work a lot more like iOS apps.

What else is new? A Badging API, so those apps can show how many messages or notifications it has available for the user, just like Mail. Apple has also made it possible to host multiple instances of an app on the home screen — so you might have a favorite site called Online Classic Games I Like and have popped web apps for seven different games on your screen. Each of those different web services will be able to interact with you — even if those games use the open AV1 codec, which it seems Apple’s about to introduce support for.

This isn’t the only addition: Apple now makes it possible for third-party browsers to add sites and web apps to the Home Screen from within the Share menu. And there’s more — web app developers can also use screen orientation, user activation, screen wake and web codecs APIs.

Respectively, these let the app understand what the orientation of the screen might be; will prevent the device locking or dimming the display when a web app is active; track user interaction to ensure the app is still in use and doesn’t need to sleep; and deliver much better control over media processing for web apps.

All of these improvements mean Web apps become much more powerful on iOS.

So, what does this mean?

At its simplest, it means Web apps have the potential to become far more powerful and far more iOS-like than before, with developers enjoying the capacity to deliver more complex app interactions.

But coming as Apple faces increased scrutiny around App Store business practices, it’s hard not to suspect this may end up becoming one of the more important responses the company has planned to these challenges.

After all, if you can tune into a web app or web service and interact with it like an iOS app via any web browser, then the only thing that may be missing is the payment system. We shall see.

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