Progress Web Apps are great for the right use cases. They can replace mobile apps and provide a similar user experience at a fraction of the development and maintenance cost.

So, how do they fit into the IoT world? We will explore this theme in a series of blogs. First up in the series, a tutorial on how to use Phoenix to host one for you.

MVPWA, aka Minimum Viable Progress Web App #

If you, like me, thought that it takes one of those nifty frontend frameworks to build a PWA, here’s a quick tour of the sausage factory.

The absolute barebones PWA only needs 3 files:

  • serviceworker.js - tells the browser to cache the app offline
  • manifest.json - gives the browser metadata on the app
  • index.html - HTML, CSS and any custom JS you need. Pulls in manifest.json and serviceworker.js.

This tutorial will help you get started with exploring these files and bulding your first PWA.

Hosting a PWA with Phoenix #

You wouldn’t be completely wrong in believing that Elixir Phoenix and PWAs occupy opposite ends of the web development spectrum. They sort of do, especially with LiveView making JS code largely redundant.

However, it’s very easy to convert some routes in your Phoenix app to a PWA. We did this recently for our Websockets client and what follows is a quick summary.

App & Routing #

Our app consists of a simple HTML page rendered by Phoenix - note that this is not a LiveView. You can check out the code for the app above by viewing source. Because, we are rendering with Phoenix, the source is quite readable and not a mess of divs.

To make serving such static pages easier, we use a single StaticPagesController module. For every new page, we add in a new method with an accompanying new route in router.ex.

Here’s the method serving /websockets:

def websockets(conn, _) do
    meta_attrs = [
      %{name: "og:title", content: "Websockets PWA"},
      %{name: "og:image", content: "/images/websockets_512.png"},
      %{name: "og:description", content: "Bodh Websockets Client PWA"},
      %{name: "description", content: "Bodh Websockets Client PWA"}

    conn =
      |> assign(:meta_attrs, meta_attrs)
      |> assign(:page_title, "Bodh Websockets Client")
      |> assign(:manifest, "manifests/websockets.json")

    render(conn, "websockets.html")

Adding the Manifest and SEO Tags #

You may have noticed assign(:manifest, "manifests/websockets.json") above. This is the line which makes adding the manifest possible. And the meta_attrs improve SEO while allowing social media sites render a nice card summary of your app when shared.

The manifest needs to be added to the head of the served HTML. Phoenix does not have built-ins to be able to do this. Instead, we add a new plug in router.ex and call it in the browser pipeline.

def default_assigns(conn, _opts) do
    |> assign(:meta_attrs, [])
    |> assign(:manifest, nil)

pipeline :browser do
    plug :accepts, ["html"]
    plug :fetch_session
    plug :default_assigns

Then, inside the root.html.ex layout, we use these assigns in the HTML head.

<%= if @meta_attrs, do: meta_tags(@meta_attrs) %>
<%= if @manifest do %>
  <link rel="manifest" href="<%= @manifest %>">
<% end %>

meta_tags/1 is defined in views/layout_view.ex:

defmodule BodhWeb.LayoutView do
  use BodhWeb, :view

  def meta_tags(attrs_list) do, &meta_tag/1)

  def meta_tag(attrs) do
    tag(:meta, Enum.into(attrs, []))

The manifest file itself can be called whatever you want. We call it websockets.json and store it in assets/static/manifests/. In order to ensure this is copied over to the generated assets inside priv, we need to modify the static plug inside endpoint.ex:

plug Plug.Static,
    at: "/",
    from: :bodh,
    gzip: false,
    only: ~w(css fonts images js favicon.ico manifests websockets.js robots.txt)

Notice manifests in the assets list. We also add some icons to assets/static/images for use in the manifest. Our final manifest file looks like this:

	"name": "Bodh Websockets Client",
	"short_name": "Bodh Websockets",
	"start_url": "/websockets",
	"display": "standalone",
	"background_color": "#5900b3",
	"theme_color": "black",
	"scope": "/websockets",
	"description": "Bodh Websockets Client PWA",
	"icons": [{
			"src": "/images/websockets_192.png",
			"sizes": "192x192",
			"type": "image/png"
			"src": "/images/websockets_512.png",
			"sizes": "512x512",
			"type": "image/png"

Integrating the Service Worker #

This was possibly the trickiest of the entire flow to figure out. Turns out that the app route (/websockets), manifest.json and the service worker, websockets.js are linked together by a scope parameter. It took me multiple readings of this MDN article, this article to figure this out.

To summarise, the manifest and the serviceworker should use the route (e.g. /websockets) as the scope and start_url. Our serviceworker (stored in websockets.js) looks like this:

var staticCacheName = "pwa";

self.addEventListener("install", function (e) {
e.waitUntil( (cache) {
	return cache.addAll(["/websockets"]);

self.addEventListener("fetch", function (event) {

	caches.match(event.request).then(function (response) {
	return response || fetch(event.request);

Finally, it’s important that the path to the serviceworker.js file is a parent of the route being served. Since we will be serving multiple PWAs from this Phoenix app, we decided to store all our service workers (including websockets.js) inside assets/static/.

There’s apparently a header you can set a Service-Worker-Allowed: "/" as described in this StackOverflow response. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to set it on the serviceworker.

Summary #

That may look like a lot but it’s really not.

  • Write your app the way you normally would any other HTML page. You could even use VueJS or ReactJS etc - as long as you point the controller method to the generated index.html.
  • Add a plug to include the manifest.json and, optionally, some SEO meta tags. Assign these in the controller method and modify the root layout so they are added to the HTML.
  • Add manifest.json and serviceworker.js to assets/static.
  • Include the serviceworker.js via a script tag in the html file.
  • Profit!

Feel free to use and copy the source code from our Websockets PWA. This series will next look at how PWAs and Websockets can change how we think about IoT apps.

Stay safe and have a good day!

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