Why the future of apps is good news for developers but bad news for people with disabilities

Some say that Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are the future for both desktop and mobile apps, but these ‘build once, run everywhere’ apps are almost certainly bad news for people with disabilities.

What are Progressive Web Apps?

Over the past 15 years websites have slowly become less like static sources of information and more like online applications that make heavy use of browser-based technologies such as JavaScript. Think of Facebook and how much more than a simple website it is.

Many developers wanted a way of taking their websites, which were close to being fully-fledged applications, and ‘wrapping’ them in a suitable app-wrapper, so they could qualify as apps in the iOS or Android stores for download like any other app.

vector image for PWAs For them the attraction is being able to build one website for use in a browser, and then simply tweaking it to be a deliver it as a native app. That way you get a consistent experience whether you access it in a browser on your computer, in a browser on your phone or as an app downloaded from your phone’s app store.

The one thing that these complicated 'all-doing' web applications have consistently needed is an internet connection. However, as mobile processors and browsers became more powerful, more and more web apps can run almost entirely offline. The mini programs, built with JavaScript and other technologies, running in the web page became so powerful that functions that used to be sent to the Cloud are now all performed in the browser.

In 2015, designer Frances Berriman and Google engineer Alex Russell coined the term "progressive web apps" to describe such websites that take advantage of these new features supported by modern browsers. Two significant features web apps need to qualify as a PWA is the ability to perform much or all of their functions offline, and also to responsively resize their layout to cater for a wide range of screen sizes.

The rise of the Progressive Web App

Being able to buildnonce and deploy everywhere (with minimal additional effort) may well have sealed the future of both desktop and mobile apps.

Microsoft, for example, has used a flavour of PWA to build new versions of their Skype 2 app, as well as their new workplace collaboration platform Teams 3. Their goal is to do away with multiple versions of these products and instead have a unified web-based core to the apps on all their platforms.

PWAs aren’t good for PWDs

The problem (and it’s a big one) is that the rise of complicated websites and web apps spells bad news for people with disabilities (PWDs).

Compared to a native mobile app or piece of software on your computer, modern websites and web apps are much less easy to navigate and operate for disabled users. 

Complex websites and web apps (PWAs) are rarely suitable for those using just a keyboard without a mouse. 

For example a screen reader like myself finds moving around new websites is tiring and laborious, as I have to tab through the pages as I can't see the page layout. Very often all the information menus, links and controls are all presented in one long overwhelming document - like a novel written on a roll of toilet paper. 

In contrast a native app is always restricted to a single pane, such as the in-box in an email app, and you can use hotkeys to jump to other areas, such as the menu or toolbar, when you need them. It's easier to navigate the whole app and much simpler to use each screen.

PWAs would've been difficult for Stephen Hawking too

It's also problematic for those using some voice commands on Dragon, as well as those using switch control such as that used by highly inspirational and sadly missed physicist Professor Hawking (pictured below).

Stephen Hawking

When the new web-app version of Skype came out for both Windows and Mac OS, the response on social media from the disabled community (lead in most part by blind users) was marked. People scrambled to locate and download the earlier version and hurriedly uninstalled the web-based update.

Microsoft values accessibility and inclusive design very highly, but it will take a significant effort to reproduce the usability benefits of native apps within these new PWA-style versions. It remains to be seen how easy it will be for companies to do this in their new PWAs going forward – and how many of them will bother.

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