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What is a "Web App"?

Published July 19, 2018


When I explain to business people what Ten Forward Consulting does, my explanation will often include the phrase, "We are a custom software development firm that specializes in mobile apps and web apps".  A common follow-up question is, "What is a 'web app'?" and / or "How does a web app differ from a website?"

I hope to answer that question below in terms any business person will understand.

To start, a "web application", or web app, is a type or subset of a website.


So, what's a website?

A website is a collection of web pages all under a similar domain name, such as businessname.com. Any URL you type into a browser or click on will send you to a single web page of a website. A common connotation of websites is that the pages are fairly content-based or informational in nature (versus functional in nature). 

For visitors to an informational website, the content doesn't change much, aside from an updated blog post or office hours periodically. Visitors can click around the site to various web pages, but the content remains the same and there is not much that can be done to change it by the visitor. 

An informational website is interactive only so much as you click around. An example of this is most marketing websites for small businesses. Most small business websites aim to explain who they are, what they do (services/products), where they're located, how to be found, and how to be contacted. This is information that does not change regularly and will not be changed by a visitor the the site.

Consider https://tenforward.consulting. This is a good example of an informational website. While there are some web forms, the website itself does not compute quotes for users.

Then what's a web application?

A web app, as a specific type of website, is also accessed via a web browser using the internet. The main difference is that a web app is dynamic: it does something (computing function) that provides some value - by changing the information on the page, for example - for the user.

Let's consider what an application is first. An application is a piece of software that performs some series of functions for the user. Therefore, a web application ("web app") performs functions for the user, but "on the web" - ie, accessed via the internet.

Consider Gmail versus Microsoft Outlook (pre Office 365).  Both are applications, but Gmail is a web application whereas MS Outlook is a local desktop application.  Other examples include Google Docs/Sheets versus MS Word/Excel.

The point is, a web app will be dynamic; it will allow the user to interact with it and perform some function(s).  

Often times, then, a web app will be connected to a back-end database of information, images, etc that are stored on a web server and require a login in order to know who the user is, know their level of access, have a history, and the like. Some web apps do not require a login, for example, like an online mortgage loan calculator. The calculator can compute a monthly payment if you give it the principal loan amount, a rate, and a term, but it won't store that information for a future date for a specific user.

Think of your current health care provider. Often times they'll have a well-designed, content-based marketing website. But once you become a member, you'll have the ability to login to their site to retrieve health records, communicate with your primary doctor, schedule appointments, etc.

So what?

Often times an organization will want to provide access to specific information, inputs, dashboards, functions, etc. to their employees, vendors, partners, or clients in order to expedite processes. At some point, programming a computer to complete certain jobs - especially repeatable tasks - is more effective and efficient (read, more profitable) than having people do them. 

These days, business processes/functions are done around the world and around the clock; time and location are less of a factor.  

  • Should employees be required to travel to a time clock or should they be given access to a mobile app that allows them to track their time regardless of location?  
  • Should patients be required to call their care provider in order to update them on at-home rehab checklists, or could they be given access to a mobile app where they can track all of their rehab in order to update their provider with real-time dashboards and reports? 
  • Should an employee be paid to manually enter information into multiple different applications (financial, customer database, project software, etc) or should a business have one portal that will submit information into multiple, disparate systems at the click of a mouse, regardless of their location?  

All of these can be solved with web apps.

For more information on web apps, please contact us.

Author details

Ryan Hartberg

Vice President
@ryanjhartberg