Developing an Installable Website Is Unbelievably Easy

Just 2 extra files. A manifest and a service worker JavaScript, both less than 10 lines. That's all it takes to install your website to your mobile home screen.

Developing Website with Add To Home Screen

Photo by Sam Beasley on Unsplash

Creating a web page is surprisingly easy. All you need is a single HTML file. But converting it to a Progressive Web App that you can install is perceived as a complex business. In reality, it is shockingly easier. You need two extra files, with less than 10 lines each.

I have created a Git repository named pwa-features that you can use for reference.

Here is the folder structure for this particular project from the repository:

  - pwa-website
     - index.html
     - manifest.json
     - sw01.js
     - images 
        - logo-192.png
        - logo-512.png

The pwa-website folder is the project root. You can name it whatever you want. All the instructions below (including commands) should be applied inside this project root folder.

Note: in the repository, the root used for this post is named 10.manifest.

Let’s get that HTML file out of the way first.

HTML - The King

Create a file named index.html. This will be the entry point to our site.

  <h1>Web App</h1>

You can open this file directly on a browser. But you are a web developer now. You’ll use a web server to serve the files to the browser.

If you have Python installed on your machine, you can readily serve the local folder using the following command on a terminal:

python -m SimpleHTTPServer

Oh, you are on ruby, no worries, this will do:

ruby -run -e httpd . -p 8000

When you run either of the above commands, ensure you are inside the project folder where you stored index.html. It serves the web under http://localhost:8000 by default. That’s your development URL. You put that on the browser and you’ll get the contents of index.html rendered.

All you see is Web App heading in the page. Next up is the manifest.

Manifest - The Queen

Web App Manifest is a json file (with key/value pairs of information about the application). Create a file named manifest.json in the same place where you created index.html.

You need to have four keys within the file.

  1. name
  2. start_url
  3. display
  4. icons

These four keys tell the browser about your website and how to show that when it is installed.

The manifest file:

  "name": "PWA Demo",
  "start_url": ".",
  "display": "standalone",
  "icons": [
      "src": "images/logo-192.png",
      "sizes": "192x192",
      "type": "image/png"
    }, {
      "src": "images/logo-512.png",
      "sizes": "512x512",
      "type": "image/png"

You can reuse the png from the pwa-features repository. Or you can create your own. Either way, create a folder named images and place two png images with an appropriate size.

Now that the Web App Manifest is ready, we can point our website at it. Place a link tag inside the head portion pointing at the JSON file.

Back to the HTML.

  <link rel="manifest" href="manifest.json">
  <h1>Web App</h1>

If you are using Chrome, get into Dev tools, under application tab, you’ll be able to see the application details with images.

Within the same tab, you have an option to Add to home screen. If you try that now, You should get an error like this:

The site cannot be installed.
No matching service worker detected.

Therein lies our clue. We need a service worker. Let’s hire one.

Service Worker - The Knight

Service worker is a piece of JavaScript that can be used to intercept network requests by the browser. It can also run background synchronization jobs for us. Though it doesn’t have direct access to the DOM, above mentioned capabilities will come in handy for us later in the series.

But for now, we need a simple worker who can help us qualify the browser needs. Chrome needs a service worker to recognize our humble HTML file as a progressive web app.

All right, first, we need to code the worker itself. This is the simplest of the three.

I have named the file as sw01.js, But you can give it a cheeky one if you want.

self.addEventListener('fetch', event=> {
    let response=fetch(event.request);

That’s the whole service worker boilerplate. It listens to fetch events from the browser. Takes that request, send it to the network and responds with whatever it received.

No magic here. Nothing useful. In fact, if anything, this service worker just added a few milli-seconds delays to the network request by being the middle agent.

We are going to delegate a lot of useful tasks to this simple worker later. But this will do for now.

Now, time to register the worker as our employee in the browser. This is all we have in our index.html.

  <link rel="manifest" href="manifest.json">
  <h1>Web App</h1>
  if ('serviceWorker' in navigator) {
    window.addEventListener('load', ()=> {

What happens now is very simple, the browser loads index.html and fires the content of the <script> tag at the bottom.

If you are new then and catch, don’t worry. You are new to [Promises] in JavaScript. Though it is not important to understand each line now, it will be useful for you to understand Run to completion and Asynchronous JavaScript Programming using Promises.

Service workers use Promises extensively. This series will use Promises going forward, though promises are not used extensively in this article.

The script tag has following instructions:

  1. Check if serviceWorker is supported.
  2. If yes, add a listener to the window.load event. This is to ensure the page is fully loaded before we start using serviceWorker
  3. When the page is loaded, register the sw01.js as the file where we have programmed our service worker.
  4. If the registration is successful, print Ready to the console. If not, well, Err...

If you refresh the browser window on http://localhost:8000 now, you can see Ready printed on the console. Chrome shows a pop up Add this app to the shelf to access it easily later.

Click on the Add to home screen link within the dev tools. You don’t see any error. Instead, the app is added to the list of applications. In my case, I’m using Elementary OS, which shows the icon in the application list for easier access.

That’s less than 40 lines, including the manifest to convert a bare html file into an app that you can install.

Now, how do we get this online and install on mobile?

Deploy Online

So far, we’ve used only the localhost development environment. To go online, we can use GitHub itself. It is very easy to switch on Github Pages for this repository and install this app from the internet.

Warning: You need to ensure that the relative path is set up properly. GitHub pages use repository name in the URL. So, any resource URL mentioned with a slash (/) will fail as it takes from the root (which is normally the URL for the user without repository). So instead of /sw01.js, use sw01.js. Instead of /manifest.json, use manifest.json.

Once you turn on GitHub pages, your repository is automatically available as a web app.

For example, the pwa-features repository has been turned into a web app that we can access via, thanks to GitHub.

If you access it on your mobile browsers like Chrome or Brave, it should show a pop up to add the site to your home screen in 30 seconds.

Here is the series of screens that I received:

The first one showing a prompt that you can add this website to your home screen.

prompt showing add to home screen

Once you tap on that prompt, you get the confirmation popup to add the website to your home screen.

confirm add to home screen

After confirmation, you can see the app being installed and finally the icon will be there on your home screen, just like any other native app.

website icon on home screen

Launching this app will now open the website in its own browser. Based on the display mode given on the manifest, it can take fullscreen or show limited browser controls.


That went well, didn’t it? Here are a few references for you to dive deeper into the PWA cave.

  1. Web App Manifest Specification
  2. Web App Manifest on MDN and on Google Web Fundamentals
  3. Add to Home Screen A2HS reference on MDN
  4. Add to Home Screen - A2HS Reference on Google Web Fundamentals

Hope it helps you get started, thanks for reading. We just scratched the surface with a boilerplate. There is so much capability that we can leverage, but that has to wait until next.

Stay tuned to the next round of posts covering Offline capabilities.

If you want to discuss more on this, leave an email with me on for your queries. There is also a GitHub issue where we can discuss this further. If you are more of social type, come and say hi on Twitter!

See Also