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Microsoft’s PWABuilder makes it easier than ever to send web apps to the Play Store

“Web plastics” or web applications that are randomly packaged in original apps for distribution in app stores have been on Android for over a decade. Google created a new method for converting web apps to native apps last year, with the introduction of trusted web activities, and now Microsoft has updated its PWABuilder tool to take advantage of newer web features.

If you don’t know them, reliable web activities allow developers to run web applications in custom Chrome tabs without the address bar or other Chrome sections visible. Unlike WebViews, which has been used for over a decade to embed web content into native apps, Trusted Web Activities supports push notifications, offline access, and everything else a web app can do in Chrome.

But there is still an important sore point with TWA apps ̵

1; they still have to be compiled as native applications, usually with the entire Android Studio SDK. Google doesn’t allow developers to generate APKs and app bundles simply by entering the app’s URL in Play Console, as Samsung does with the Galaxy Store.

Thankfully, Google is working to improve tools commonly used to generate Trusted Web Activity apps. Some Google employees (the documentation explicitly says “This is not a Google product”) have worked with Bubblewrap, a command-line program to build TWA projects. Developers using Bubblewrap to generate native applications do not need the entire Android SDK installed, only Node.js.

Examples of a PWA (PhotoStack.app) with shortcuts to the app

At the same time, Microsoft has updated its web-based PWABuilder tool to use Bubblewrap under the hood, which means more features are available. For example, PWABuilder can now detect when a web app supports shortcuts on the home screen and adds the same shortcuts to the compiled APK. PWABuilder now also has options to change the appearance of Android’s status / navigation bar, the app’s splash screen, fallback behavior and more.

The new options available in PWABuilder

While it would be nice to see a build tool integrated into the Google Play console, at least there are now many options for generating APKs from Progressive Web Apps that do not require installing Android Studio and moving around with XML resources.

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