How to convert your favorite web apps into desktop applications: the power of PWAs

How to convert your favorite web apps into desktop applications: the power of PWAs
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Consider the desktop programs you use on a regular basis. For many people, this will be limited to an image editor, a web browser, and possibly an office application. Working in the cloud is now the norm, and the trend is only going up. (Microsoft now allows you to stream Windows through a web browser.)

With the line between online apps and desktop programs becoming increasingly blurred, you can now install some of the most popular web apps on your Windows, macOS, or Chrome OS desktop. This makes use of what are known as progressive web apps, or PWAs, and we’ll go over everything you need to know about them.

Explained: Progressive Web Apps

Progressive web apps are a subset of web apps. A PWA is not every app that can be run on the web. To qualify, an online app must be built in a specific way by its developer and adhere to a specific set of coding standards that allow it to stand alone as a desktop program.

Twitter, Spotify, Google Chat, and Uber are some of the most well-known examples of PWAs, but more are being added all the time. PWAs are being promoted as part of the desktop ecosystem by both Google (understandably) and Microsoft. As a result, using the Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge browsers is the simplest way to get them set up.

When you switch from using Twitter in a browser to using it in a PWA, you won’t notice much of a difference right away. PWAs are essentially websites running in a desktop program wrapper, so they share a lot of functionality. However, you will be able to treat them as desktop applications, which has a number of advantages.

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It means that you can manage these apps more easily from the taskbar (Windows), dock (MacOS), or shelf (Linux) (Chrome OS). Installing PWAs also means that notifications from these apps can be managed at the operating system level and treated differently than browser notifications. They’ll be accessible from the main application list, and you won’t need to open your browser to use them.

These PWAs essentially aim to combine the slickness and simplicity of web apps with the traditional format of desktop apps—a sort of best-of-both-worlds approach. When you consider the load that your browser receives on a daily basis, as well as the number of tabs you typically have open, moving some key apps to separate windows can help to reduce clutter.

That’s not to say you’ll want to use a PWA instead of a browser every time the option is available. It is entirely dependent on how you use your apps. However, you can tell which websites support the PWA format and which do not at a glance.

You can still create shortcuts from your desktop for online apps that aren’t PWA-compatible—in Chrome, for example, choose More tools and Create shortcut from the main browser menu, which places a link to the current site on your desktop. However, in order to get the full experience and benefits, you must install the progressive web app.

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PWA Installation and Use

As previously stated, not all web apps can be installed as PWAs—but if you’re on one, you’ll notice an icon that looks like a downward arrow by a computer (in Chrome) or a plus sign by a grid (in Microsoft Edge), just to the right of the URL in the address bar. PWAs cannot currently be configured as desktop apps in Safari or Firefox.

Hover over the browser icon and you’ll see the text Install (in Chrome) or App available (in Edge). If you then click the icon and confirm the action on the dialog prompt that appears, the app will be added to the taskbar, dock, or shelf (depending on your operating system).

The contents of the previous webpage are transferred to the new PWA window. So, if you were listening to a Spotify playlist, for example, the music will continue in the new window. If you were viewing a tweet when you chose to install the Twitter PWA, that tweet will be displayed in the new app, and so on. The only difference is that the app is no longer within your browser.

This does not preclude you from using these web apps in your browser; however, if you open a site that is also installed as a PWA, you will notice an arrow to the right of the address bar. Simply click this to open the current page in the desktop app rather than in a browser tab.

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After you’ve installed a PWA, you can use it just like any other desktop app. Right-click on its icon in the taskbar, dock, or shelf to get more options—for example, in Windows, you can pin an app to the taskbar for easy access, or in macOS, you can have the app start up at the same time as your operating system.

When you open a PWA, you can access a limited number of options by clicking the three dots on the toolbar—the menu you see depends on whether you installed the app using Chrome or Edge. In either case, you’ll be able to control the app’s permissions (access to your location and camera, for example), just like you can with websites.

Instead of multiple browser tabs, you’ll be working with multiple windows in your newly installed PWAs, which you can treat like any other desktop program. For example, in Windows, you can drag the title bar to the left or right edge of the screen to snap it to that side of the screen.

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