Notifications Finally Make iPhone and iPad Web Apps Worth Using

If only you could work out how to install them

  • The iOS 16.4 beta adds notification support to web apps. 
  • Apple might be doing this to avoid government regulation of its App Stores. 
  • Web apps are still way too hard to install.
Closeup on the torso area of two people dressed in business attire, pointing to the screen of a smartphone one is holding.

Luis Villasmil / Unsplash

iPhone web apps are about to get proper notifications. But what are web apps exactly?

In iOS 16.4, Apple is adding support for notifications in web apps. Web apps are kind of like mini websites running on your phone, with their own icon and so on, and they are a way for developers to avoid the App Store and its approval process. But until now, they have been short on features, and even in iOS 16.4 will remain a pain to "install."

"Web first development for an app has many trade-offs, but for some companies developing a web first application can be a less expensive option while still meeting their user requirements," iOS app developer Tyler Browning told Lifewire via email. "With Safari owning about 20 percent of the global web browsing market share, there is a benefit for web first mobile apps to better engage with their users with web notifications."

What Are Web Apps?

A web app is an app that uses web technologies like HTML, Javascript, and so on. Usually, we just call these things "websites," but it is possible to add them to your Home screen, and when you tap the icon, they open as apps instead of just in a tab in the Safari browser. 

The differences are subtle but important. A web app gets its own storage space and can run when you are offline. It also appears as an app in the iPhone (or iPad) app switcher. All these combine to make web apps more than just a convenient bookmark on your Home screen. And in fact, they can actually be pretty useful. 

The front of an iPhone displaying app icons.

Onur Binay / Unsplash

For example, if you save the Instagram website as a Home screen bookmark, the resulting web app works just like the actual Instagram app. If you're on the iPad, you get an iPad-sized Instagram app. But until now, there was no way to get alerts or notifications from it.

Push Notifications for Web Apps

Any web app added to the Home Screen can now send regular notifications. This means that, in our Instagram example, you could see the same alerts as you get from the regular app. The iOS 16.4 beta also supports Apple's Focus modes (Do Not Disturb etc.) and red alert badges on web app icons. 

Also new is support for third-party browsers like Google's Chrome to create home-screen web apps. 

These changes are welcome, but why add them now? It's a mid-cycle iOS update, and nobody has really been asking for them. One answer might be that such basic features are long overdue. Another more cynical take is that Apple is doing everything it can to open up less-important parts of its platforms to avoid government regulation. 

"It's impossible to say whether increased regulatory scrutiny has changed Apple's priorities regarding iOS's support for web apps, but it sure seems like a factor," veteran Apple pundit John Gruber writes on his Daring Fireball blog.

Someone using the web on an iPad with a computer in the background.

Taras Shypka / Unsplash

Missing Parts and Pieces

There is still plenty missing from web apps, things that would make them an even better alternative to the App Store. Background tasks would be one, for example. A podcast player app could check for updates while not running. And right now, web apps don't support widgets, which can be a huge deal depending on how you use your phone. 

And web apps are still ridiculously hard to install. 

"[A]dding a website to the home screen remains such a hidden feature that even power users would be forgiven for not knowing about it," web developer and author Jeremy Keith writes on his blog. "As long as this remains the case, we can expect usage of web push on iOS to be vanishingly low. Hardly anyone is going to add a website to their home screen when their web browser makes it so hard."

If Apple is serious about turning web apps into viable alternatives to App Store apps, it could definitely ease the pressure for Apple to allow third-party app stores on iOS. But the real winners will be the developers and, by extension, us users. Web apps can be surprisingly good even under the current tight restrictions. Opening them up would make them pretty compelling for everyone.

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