23 Aug 2017, 19:28

Low Hanging PWA Fruit: Manifest Files and Service Worker Precache

It would be a fair assessment to state that Progressive Web Apps (often abbreviated to PWA) are a popular buzzword in the web development and JavaScript communities at the moment. We have also seen further excitement recently, generated by Apple’s move to start supporting development for PWA features within Safari.

Many great posts and documentation exist around explaining the full case for PWAs and how they benefit users. For a solid introduction to Progressive Web Apps check out Google’s page on the matter. In addition, if you’re looking for something tangible there’s also lots of great examples of PWAs that you can explore in more detail at pwa.rocks.

Perhaps now more than ever it’s time to start exploring how you can start looking into aligning your app or site with PWA functionality. This post will be more practical than theoretical, but to give some context I will list out some of the core concepts of what makes a PWA for those of you unfamiliar:

  • Pages are responsive: The app’s content fits in a sensible way on a tablets, mobiles etc
  • Site is served over HTTPS: assets and resources are served using encryption over the wire
  • The entry page loads offline for users
  • The app uses a manifest.json file to allow adding the app to a users homescreen
  • Load times are reasonable even on slower connections like 3G
  • Each page has its own unique URL
  • The site works across modern browsers

Here we will just focus in on two of these concepts and how to integrate them, namely adding a manifest.json file and adding a Service Worker. Subsequently, we can also use the Service Worker to allow the initial page to work offline by using a precache.

Adding a Manifest File

A manifest file provides a few additional weapons to the web app arsenal for developers. The file itself is fairly plain; a JSON file that contains configuration and metadata for various aspects of the application.

However what the manifest file allows for is a whole host of interesting benefits for those looking to give a more ‘app like’ experience:

  • Allowing users to add a web app to their home screen
  • Giving that home screen button a unique name and icon
  • Giving a splash screen to the app when the user loads it
  • Being able to add a theme colour for the web app
  • Define if the app should load ‘standalone’ or in a web browser

Now we’ve gone through why you would add a manifest.json file, let’s take a look at an example config:


{
  "name": "SomeCoolApp",
  "short_name": "SomeCoolApp",
  "start_url": ".",
  "display": "standalone",
  "background_color": "#111111",
  "description": "An app for doing cool things",
   "icons": [{
    "src": "images/manifest/48.png",
    "sizes": "48x48",
    "type": "image/png"
  }, {
    "src": "images/manifest/72.png",
    "sizes": "72x72",
    "type": "image/png"
  }, {
    "src": "images/manifest/96.png",
    "sizes": "96x96",
    "type": "image/png"
  }, {
    "src": "images/manifest/144.png",
    "sizes": "144x144",
    "type": "image/png"
  }, {
    "src": "images/manifest/168.png",
    "sizes": "168x168",
    "type": "image/png"
  }, {
    "src": "images/manifest/homescreen192.png",
    "sizes": "192x192",
    "type": "image/png"
  }],
  "related_applications": [{
    "platform": "web"
  }, {
    "platform": "play",
    "url": "https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=SomeCoolApp"
  }]
}

You can see that we provide a name and short_name which give a name and an abbreviated name for the app when space is a premium. start_url expresses where the kick off URL for the application when the user starts the app. For example, it could be their profile page or the home page.

As mentioned, we can decide if the app should load in a web browser or have a more native experience. This is realised through the display property. We can provide standalone to give a more native feel as it hides away browser features like the URL bar (this may be a negative feature depending on your feelings!). There are other options for this such as fullscreen which hides OS UI features, and also minimal-ui which take a middle ground on the matter.

The background_color property allows for us to express a colour that will occur before the app has fully loaded into its container. icons provide a way to give icons for our applications at different device sizes. For a full list of options check out MDN’s page on the matter.

You could write the manifest file manually (see Google’s instructions here). However, if you want a more streamlined experience you could use a generator instead. One generator I found user-friendly and straight forward is the app-manifest app on Firebase, which you can use to generate a zip file which can be unloaded into your web app directory.

Lastly we can include it in our home page’s HTML as so:

<link rel="manifest" href="/manifest.json">

Adding a Service Worker

The Service Worker is a slightly more complex concept than the manifest file. In essence Service Workers are web workers that allow code to run outside of the web page context within the browser. The Service Worker also in some ways acts as a network proxy, allowing the developer to change the behaviour of network requests (i.e. to read from a cache rather than a remote resource). In principle, these two concepts allow for a host of new opportunities for web apps, including push notifications, offline interactivity and background sync (sending server requests upon resumption of connectivity).

Before we dive in any deeper, it’s important to note that Service Workers require HTTPS to operate, so you will need to have that setup on your site before continuing (checkout Let’s Encrypt if you’re in need of an SSL certificate).

Although we could dig in deep into the Service Worker internals and life cycle, I would rather focus on getting us up and running with a Service Worker. Others have done a great job explaining Service Workers in depth, for example see the Google primer on Service Worker or check out Phil Nash’s great introductory video here. Instead we will focus on one example Service Worker template that allows us to get a registered Service Worker into our page quickly.

An easy to leverage Service Worker template is provided by sw-precache. Using a precache allows you to serve resources from the Service Worker cache, rather than having to wait for it to come over the wire which improves the performance of the app. It also allows us to get resources whilst offline. sw-precache itself is a tool that allows for the automatic code generation of a Service Worker for caching assets that we would normally receive over the network (images, css etc). As sw-precache requires a preprocessing step to generate the Service Worker we need to leverage a task runner. Here we can use gulp, a JavaScript task runner to create a task to generate the list of resources we want to precache. Here’s some example code with comments:


    // Register the service-worker task with Gulp
    gulp.task('service-worker', function(callback) {

        // Get hold of the sw-precache module
        var swPrecache = require('sw-precache');
        var rootDir = '../public/';
        var serviceWorkerName = "precache"; 
        var fileName = `${rootDir}${serviceWorkerName}.js`;

        // Write the precache Service Worker
        swPrecache.write(fileName, {

            // An array of file paths to precache (we use globbing)
            staticFileGlobs: [
                rootDir + 'index.html',
                rootDir + 'templates/.{html}',
                rootDir + 'js/**/*.{js}',
                rootDir + 'css/**/*.{css}',
                rootDir + 'fonts/**/*.{svg,eot,ttf,woff,woff2}',
                rootDir + 'icons/**/*.{svg}',
                rootDir + 'images/**/*.{png,jpg}',
            ],
            // We remove the prefix and can replace it with another
            // Here `../public/` becomes `/` for example
            stripPrexix: rootDir,
            replacePrefix: "/"

        }, callback);

    });

Running gulp service-worker will generate our Service Worker precache file called precache.js. We can now register this into our app using the code expressed below:

    // Check to make sure the Service Worker feature exists
    if ("serviceWorker" in navigator) {
        // On page load, call the Service Worker registration
        window.addEventListener('load', registerSW);
    }

    // The actual registration code
    var registerSW = function() {

        // The location of our generated pre-cache Service Worker
        var swPath = "/precache.js";
        navigator.serviceWorker.register(swPath)
            .then(registrationSuccess, registrationFailed);

    }

    var registrationFailed = function(error) {
        // Do something if there is an error
    }

    var registrationSuccess = function(registration) {
        // Do something if everything is successful
    }

Once the Service Worker is registered the user will make use of the cache when making network requests for cached assets.

Conclusion

Here we have shown how you could add a manifest and a Service Worker to your web app without complicating your application code too much. If you already have gulp in your build process integrating sw-precache shouldn’t be too much extra effort to get up and running. Similarly using the manifest.json app shown above we can simply generate a working manifest file for our application.

Hopefully, this article has begun to pave the way for further PWA features in your applications. Support is gradually getting there so the reasons to avoid the potential benefits are decreasing. If you are interested in auditing your app to see how much it adheres to Google’s PWA checklist, check out a Chrome extension called Lighthouse. Lighthouse will score your app depending on how well it compares a set of pre-defined criteria.