Key TakeawaysA web app is a website with added local storage.Web apps get home-screen icons, and seem just like native apps.They may actually be ideal for game-streaming services. RyanKing999 / Getty Images
Apple has blocked game streaming services from Microsoft and Google from its App Store, so both companies will instead launch them as web apps. But just what is a web app? Is it just a website? Will it be fast enough for games?
Google's Stadia and Microsoft's xCloud let you play games by "remote control." The games actually run on powerful servers in the cloud, and stream the video footage. The local app is used as a portal to display the video, and to send your controller commands up to the cloud.
But Apple has blocked game-streaming services like these from the App Store. These apps offer a suite of games inside a kind of app store, which is what Apple doesn't like. So, Microsoft and Google are making them into web apps instead.
"Web apps lack the ability to cache large files locally," Brent Brookler, CEO of cloud presentation software developer FlowVella, told Ach5 via Twitter. "Native apps work offline and everything can be faster when large and small files are local, even with fast networks."
What Is A Web App?
A web app is essentially an app that runs on a website, and is given special privileges to store data on your device. To install a web app, you just tap the share arrow when viewing the website, and choose Add to Home Screen from the list. That's it.
Now, when you tap on the newly added Home Screen icon, the web app will launch. It gets its own space—it doesn't open in a Safari tab—and it can store some data locally. To test this, you can put your device in airplane mode, and still launch the app.
Web apps are limited compared to native apps, but they do have surprisingly deep access to the device. According to developer Maximiliano Firtman, they can access your location, the gyroscope and other sensors, the camera, Apple Pay, and more. In short, says Firtman, they can "look and act like any other app."itsskin / Getty Images
Gaming Web Apps
Games have specific needs when it comes to playing remotely. One issue is latency, or the delay introduced by playing over the internet. With a console, you press a button on your controller, and it goes over the wire (or Bluetooth connection) to the console six feet away from you, which reacts, and sends the video signal to your TV.
With streaming games, these wires are tens or even thousands of miles long, which introduces latency between pressing a button and seeing the result.
Web apps introduce extra complications. For instance, Martin Algesten CTO of Lookback, who specializes in streaming video, told Ach5 via direct message, "With a native app you can make a 'thin client' where the video is rendered on the iPad or iPhone," but the actual game is run on the remote servers. This can speed things up, because you don't have to stream high-definition video.
With a web app, however, all that video has to be sent back from the servers. Then again, says Algesten, "in games with a lot of game state needing to be transferred, the video streaming probably wins."
In the end, the results will come down to smart engineering. The hardest part of Stadia and xCloud has already been solved: how to make games responsive when played over the internet. Figuring out how to get around the limits of web apps is easy in comparison. Perhaps the overall result won't be quite as slick as a proper App Store app, but when it comes to the game-playing part, it's likely to be just as good.