There have been a few turning points in the history of the web platform that radically changed how web apps were built, deployed and experienced. Ajax was one such pivot that led to a profound shift in web engineering. It allowed web applications to be responsive enough to challenge the conventional desktop apps. However on mobile, the experience was defined by native apps and web apps hardly came close to them, at least until now. Mobile Engineering team at Flipkart discovered that with right set of capabilities in a browser, a mobile web app can be as performant as a native app.
Thanks to Extensible Web Manifesto’s efforts to tighten the feedback loop between the editors of web standards and web developers, browser vendors started introducing new low-level APIs based on the feedback from developers. The advent of these APIs brings unprecedented capabilities to the web. We, at Flipkart, decided to live on this bleeding edge and build a truly powerful and technically advanced web app while working to further evolve these APIs.
Here’s a sneak peek into how we’ve created an extremely immersive, engaging and high-performance app.
Immersive : While native apps are rich in experience, they do come with a price of an install. While web apps solved the instant access problem, the network connectivity still plays a significant role in defining the web experience. There have been multiple attempts at enabling offline web apps in the past, such as AppCache and using LocalStorage/ IndexedDB. However, these solutions failed to model complex offline use cases described below, making it painful to develop and debug issues. Service Workers replace these approaches by providing a scriptable network proxy in the browser that allows you to handle the requests programmatically. With Service Workers, we can intercept every network request and serve a response from cache even when the user is offline.
We chose to use SW-Toolbox, a Service Workers wrapper library that enables using simple patterns such as NetworkFirst, CacheFirst or NetworkOnly. SW-Toolbox provides an LRU cache used in our app for storing previous search results on the browse page and last few visited product pages. The toolbox also has TTL-based cache invalidation mechanism that we use to purge out of date content. Service Workers provides low-level scriptable primitives that make this possible.
Making the right solution work was as hard as devising it. We faced a wide spectrum of challenges from implementation issues to dev tooling bugs. We are actively collaborating with browser vendors to resolve these challenges.
One such significant challenge that emerged from our use of Service Workers was to build a “kill switch”. It is easy to end up with bugs in Service Workers and stale responses. Having a reliable mechanism to purge all caches has helped us to be proactively ready for any contingencies or surprises.
One more cornerstone of a truly immersive experience is a fullscreen, standalone experience launched right from the home screen. This is what the Add to Home Screen (ATHS) prompt allows us to do. When the user chooses to add to home screen, the browser creates a high-quality icon on the home screen based on the metadata in the Web Manifest. The ATHS prompt is shown automatically to the user based on a heuristic that is specific to each browser. On Chrome, if the user has visited the site twice within a defined period, the prompt will trigger. In the newer Chrome versions, we receive an event once we have matched the heuristic and can show the prompt at a later point in time.
While the heuristic is indispensable to prevent spam on the web platform, we felt it was too conservative and convinced the Chrome team to tweak the heuristic for more commonly occurring scenarios. Based on our feedback, experiments are underway by the Chrome team to shorten the required delay between interactions.
Native apps use splash screen to hide the slow loading of home screen. Web never had this luxury and there was a blank page staring at the user before home screen could load up. Good news is the latest version of Chrome supports generation of a splash screen that radically improves the launch experience and perceived performance of the web app.
Another capability we’re championing is opening external links in the standalone app version rather than in a browser tab. Currently, there is a limitation with Android, but we are working with the Chrome team to enable this use case as soon as possible.
Engaging: Being able to Re-engage with our users on the web has always been a challenge. With the introduction of the Web Push API, we now have the capability to send Push Notifications to our users, even when the browser is closed. This is possible because of Service Workers, that live beyond the lifetime of the browser.
High Performance: A highly performant mobile app is the one that requests less data over the network and takes less time to render. With a powerful scriptable proxy and persistent cache living in the browser, the data consumption from the network can be reduced significantly. This also helped in reducing the dependency on the network strength and eliminating all latencies on a repeat visit.
Rendering Performance has always has been a challenge for the web. We identified significant improvements in performance when GPU handled rasterization compared to CPU doing it. Hence we decided to leverage GPU rasterization on Chrome (Project Ganesh, by including the required meta tag in our HTML). At the same time, we have carefully balanced the right number of GPU accelerated composited layers by measuring composition vs. paint costs. Thirdly, we’re using GPU friendly animations namely Opacity and Transform transitions.
Profiling on various mobile devices using Chrome Dev Tools Timeline panel and Chrome Tracing, helped us identify multiple bottlenecks and optimization paths. This helped us make the best of each frame during an animation. We are continuously striving to achieve 60fps animations and interactions. We use the RAIL model for our performance budgets and strive to match and exceed expectations on each of the metrics.
All of this put together, manifested into a stellar experience for our users. It’s been a remarkable journey building this web app, working with browser vendors and pushing the limits of web platform on mobile. Over the coming weeks, we plan to roll out more detailed posts that deep-dive into the technical architectures, patterns and most importantly the lessons learned.
We believe more browser companies and developers will start thinking in these lines and make web apps even better. The web is truly what you make of it, and we have only just begun.
Last but not the least, meet the Flipkart Lite Team that did the magic— Abhinav Rastogi, Aditya Punjani, Boopathi Raja, Jai Santhosh, Abinash Mohapatra, Nagaraju Epuri, Karan Peri, Bharat KS, Baisampayan Saha, Mohammed Bilal, Ayesha Rana, Suvonil Chatterjee, Akshay Rajwade.
(wish everyone was in the pic)