Website vs Web Application

In a recent conversation with one of our customers, we asked how they came to select us as their Strategic Technology Partner. The answer, reduced to its essence, is that they had to do a lot of legwork to find a competent local developer that could turn their design into a working application at a pace that eased the financial burden.

He had first engaged with an off shore development company, and ran into the typical problems of insufficient communication and language barriers. He then engaged with an out of state company that was technically capable, but lacked business processes, communication practices and change control. He stated that there were so many bug fixes required that his investment to date was three or four times the original estimate.

His next big challenge was to learn the difference between companies that do website development and those that do web application development. He, and his investors, had spent a year deciding which company to partner with. He interviewed a number of companies that could do an outstanding website design but couldn’t do the transactional back end applications. That’s when he began to understand the difference between the two types of companies. He said, “Your industry needs to get better at explaining the difference.”

ridescout_preview_smallI think he’s right. When he made that comment I noted it down. I thought I could state the difference clearly, but as I began doing a little research to see if I could find an authoritative definition, the lines began to blur. So, I’m going to take a stab at it, and ask for your comments, to see if this can be better stated.

Web applications, or, “web apps.” are very popular today due to the availability of web browsers, the variety of tasks performed, and the convenience of smart phones and tablets. Common web applications include web mail, online retail sales and auctions, social networking, locating resources, driving directions, and all the other apps you use on your smart device.

So, how to explain the difference?

A “web app” is any custom software that runs in a web browser and accesses application files on remote servers. Web applications are usually developed in open source software such as Ruby on Rails, Django, or Symfony, which are web application frameworks. These frameworks facilitate development by allowing a development team to focus on the parts of their project which are unique to their goals without having to resolve routine issues such as user management, which have already been coded and imbedded in the framework.

Websites are getting more responsive, so it can be harder to distinguish which is which. A website, such as Amazon, has many applications running in the background.

Website development is generally split up into User Interface coding, covering aspects such as the layout design, and “back-end” coding, which connects the website’s functionality with behind-the-scenes applications such as a shopping cart. Website developers typically provide Graphic design, User Interface Design, Information architecture, Navigational Structure, and Copy writing with cross-browser usability, accessibility and search engine optimization in mind.

What Do You Think? Given the challenge of making the distinction between these, how would you state it?