First look at WebAPK - new way for Google to distribute apps

A Google developer has posted a demo of a WebAPK and we're doing a first look at this new way of distributing (web) applications by Google. WebAPKs load super fast, even on slow networks, can can request the same permissions as native apps and also can have an icon on the homescreen.

When officially in use, WebAPKs will likely be progressive web applications. That means they will feel like native apps but will be progressively offered, or easier explained, more of the app will become available as you use it. We're not entirely sure how it will work yet but Google writes on its website, "as the user progressively builds a relationship with the app over time, it becomes more and more powerful."

It's an interesting technology and when we found a demo used by Google developers, we couldn't wait to give it a try.

In order to install the WebAPK used in the demo we had to resort to the developer version of Chrome for Android (in our case on Android 6.0.1) We used the developer version as the regular Chrome version has a flag to enable WebAPK, but we couldn't get it to work.

Within Chrome Dev we navigated to chrome://flags and set 'Improved add to Home screen' to enabled. This feature has the description, "Packages 'Progressive Web Apps' so that they can integrate more deeply with Android. A Chrome server is used to package sites. In Chrome Canary and Chrome Dev this requires 'Untrusted Sources' to be enabled in Android security settings."

When this feature is enabled, Android will automatically ask you to go to the 'Lockscreen and security' settings from where you can enable 'Unknown sources'.

Once that was enabled we navigated to the demo URL in Chrome Dev, a page with some code. When things are setup correctly the page will prompt you to install the app 'Short Train'. When clicking 'Install' you will be guided through the regular installation wizard as with regular apps.

When the app is installed it will appear on the homescreen and you can use it like any other app. The demo doesn't do much more than showing the same page from which you installed the app and we couldn't get the update feature to work unfortunately.

Developers will be interested there know there is a manifest generator.

We were very interested in what kind of file was generated and whether it would be listed like any regular app. And yes, an APK was generated, we found a 20kB large APK file with the contents one would expect for the base directory inside an APK file.

As stated before, the app doesn't do much. It does however learn us that it appears that Google needs only a little space and bandwidth to get a basic version of WebAPKs on your phone, likely because it heavily relies on Chrome.

While this is only a very basic first look, we can understand where Google is heading. There are way more developers that can write HTML, Javascript and CSS and with WebAPKs they get the same performance as native app developers. Besides that, WebAPKs can be light due to the usage of Chrome and they can be shared directly from any website without the need of going to a third-party app store.

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