Episode 5: Rusty Mitchell and Kelly Merrell on building native apps vs Progressive Web Apps

I met with the VP of Design and VP of Engineering at Mercury Intermedia where they create native iOS and Android apps for some of the world's biggest brands. I asked them about the potential for Progressive Web Apps to replace native apps.

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Jon Henshaw: Welcome to the fifth episode of a Coywolf Digital Marketing Podcast. I’m your host, Jon Henshaw. In this episode, I’m sharing an excerpt from my interview with Rusty Mitchell and Kelly Merrell. Rusty is the VP of Design and Kelly is the VP of Engineering for Android at Mercury Intermedia.

Mercury is based in my hometown of Nashville and they build native Android and iOS apps for well-known brands like Red Bull, Comcast, TED, The Washington Post and many more. In this excerpt, I explain Progressive Web Apps and ask them whether or not they had any plans to make them for their clients. If you eat and breathe SEO and all things Google like I do, then I think you’re going to find their answers very interesting.

Google has been quietly I guess you might say, just in general, but not quietly in my world of search and SEO and stuff that has been pushing for something called Progressive Web App, which we commonly call PWAs. Doing it for years in my world and it’s just now I think starting to surface in your world or it will. And essentially what it is, is it’s leveraging things like what we call Service Workers, which is all background JavaScript, things that run, always running. What it does is it makes it so that you can take what was traditionally a web app where we always have to be online and it actually, it does several things.

It makes it so that it works on something that, where something might have very little bandwidth, it makes it work offline. The most basic example is literally just saving some content, so if you were on say, a news site like kind of apps you guys have made in the past, maybe now too. It would save articles or it might pull it down, then you can just read it offline on an airplane or whatever. The more complex versions of these are literally apps, I mean they’re real apps. They even just released one maybe a month or two ago at the developer conference called Squish or Squoosh or something and-

Rusty Mitchell: Is it another messaging app?

JH: No.

RM: Because Google needs like one more messaging app right?

JH: But it sounds like it could be.

Kelly Merrell: They’re down to five.

JH: Yeah, like can you squoosh me? And I’ll get back to you. That’s like, it’s really uncomfortable.

It’s an image editing app and legit works, and so but the thing about it is that I don’t have to go to the App Store. I don’t have to go to Google Play. It’s just, I go to the website, and I can add it to my home screen or whatever, and it’s there. It’s stored. I have this app, where I circumvented going through the controlled, walled garden, and really, I just have this website that works on my phone without an internet connection.

So, I think just what I described right then is the reason why they’re pushing for it. I think that they’re trying to get away from this walled garden. But, also because it’s a website, technically, it gives them access to all the things they want and need in order to serve ads.

RM: Right.

JH: Alright, let’s just realistic here. You thought I was going to say deliver the best app to the user, but what I meant to say was ads.

RM: This is all a play to bring Flash back, right?

JH: Yeah, this is all about Flash. So, I was curious to know have you considered what that might mean, or considered even making a Progressive Web App, and kind of what you’re thoughts are on that? Do you think that what I just described has the potential to replace a native app? Because that means I actually only have to build one thing? It’s on the web and it is portable in a no-internet mobile…

RM: Honestly, I’ve heard very little about Progressive Web Apps. In our world, we don’t have clients that are requesting those things. They’re not really hitting points of conversations in new sites that we’re looking at on a regular basis.

It sounds like something that has potential but is still new enough, or in early enough days, that it’s not a high priority right now.

JH: Yeah, and see, I find this absolutely fascinating because it’s one of those things where I sort of live in my own industry bubble. And, this thing has been around for years, and when I go to conferences, especially when Google has a presence there, it’s what they’re talking about.

RM: They’re not talking about that at Google I/O.

JH: Exactly. Well, they did at their web development conference they just had. But it’s not, this is what’s fascinating to me, I keep talking to people who’ve actually built native apps for the major mobile OSes and they’re like, “What! Like, I don’t know, what are you talking about?” And, I’m just trying, it’s weird to go from, “Oh, my goodness, this is the next big thing and everybody’s doing this,” to go to the people who are actually making the things that this is supposed to replace, and they have no idea what the hell it is.

RM: Yeah, yeah.

KM: I wonder if it comes down to it’s not as sexy right now for the big companies. Everything we do is driven by what our clients want, and what they ask for. So, if they’re not hearing about, or it’s not a hot-enough thing, well they’re not gonna dump money into it.

Even if it is more practical, which I’m not sure what the trade-offs would be necessary. If it’s not sexy, these companies aren’t gonna spend the money on it, and they’re not gonna be focused in on that. So, that might be why we don’t hear about it in the mobile world, is mobile and apps are super hot. Having an app icon, very sexy. We like the stores. Everybody wants placement in the stores and promotion and…

RM: I think even though you talk about it as though there’s the app stores are these walled gardens, which they are. And that there’s probably really valid reasons for Google to be evaluating other approaches for people to get products, other than through the App Store. There are advantages from that store as well, that you can trust what comes from it. There are advantages to our clients in the fact that if they put together a good application that is compelling to their clients, that that is in Google and Apple’s best interest as well, and that they will promote those applications, so they assist them in discovery. Being part of that ecosystem, being within that store is a good thing for them.

On top of that, and you explaining how the Progressive Web Apps are working right now, I know that if you’re on desktop and you wanted to save this so that you could use it later, it’s not too painful, but in my experience of trying to save a web experience on a mobile device to use in a later date, it’s pretty unwieldy and confusing. Even for myself having used these products for the last ten years and being immersed in this on a daily basis, it can be a little confusing to go through all the steps to get this thing on my springboard or home page or whatever, so that I can access this later. My mom is never going to figure that out. It’s just not going to happen.

Until the platforms are set up in a way that it’s a lot easier for people to get these things, and use them in the same way as they would jump into the App Store and hit an install button, and the thing’s on their phone, it’s not going to be as compelling or viable, I don’t think.

JH: So, would it be an accurate statement to say, at least from what you know and the experience you have and the fact that I know for sure that Rusty, you go to conferences and stuff, and I know you’ve gone to the Apple Developer Conference, I assume you go to the conferences, Kelly-

KM: Yep.

JH: That as far as you know, nobody is talking about this in your world.

RM: I’m sure that there are people that are, but not with a high enough frequency that’s it’s-

KM: Bubbled up.

RM: It’s hitting us.

JH: That’s what I mean, it’s not something that you need to concern yourself with yet. But the other part is, and this to me is even more important, is that your customers, which in your case you’re customers are pretty big, and I would even say, that some of them I would consider to be, if anybody’s doing it, they’re doing it type of customers, and they’re not asking for it.

And then, one last layer to that is, unless it can get to a point where it’s as easier or easier to essentially be on this site. Because it has to be on your browser, really. It becomes obvious and easy and makes sense to the general public that they can somehow add this over to somewhere on their screen, like we were saying, on the home screen whatever you wanna call it. It has a long way to go.

RM: Yeah, it’s funny that this was Steve Jobs’ vision for the iPhone initially. He stood up and tried to pitch to everybody that we didn’t need an App Store. We didn’t need native apps. That you could just do all this stuff from the web. And that lasted for nine months before, about nine months, before suddenly we had an App Store that was ready and going, if you kind of look behind the scenes a little bit, against his will initially, before he came around to it.

JH: You can listen to the full 50-minute interview on Coywolf at coywolf.io/mercury. Thanks for listening.

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Jon Henshaw

Jon is the founder of Coywolf and the EIC and the primary author reporting for Coywolf News. He is an industry veteran with over 25 years of digital marketing and internet technologies experience. Follow @[email protected]