Website vs. Web App?

November 12th, 2010 49 Comments

For no real reason, I asked myself a question yesterday: what’s the difference between a website and web app?

Failing to come up with a concrete set of differentiators, I took my question to Rich (@rmanalan), and subsequently stumped him.

He eventually boiled the differences down to:

And then pointed me to Wikipedia’s thoughts on web application vs. website.

It’s not an easy question to answer, especially when you examine existing web presences that have been around a long time and have evolved, e.g. Amazon.

Bill (@btaroli) came up with a pretty good answer via Twitter:

After noodling for a day, there is no cut/dried answer. I would classify Amazon as a web app. Google Search too. If only because they perform tasks for the user.

Using that definition, websites are informational, e.g. CNN.com or NFL.com. However, when you start to categorize that way, you find nearly every site is a hybrid, e.g. NFL.com now includes fantasy football and game tickets, CNN.com includes sharing and commenting capabilities, all of which are web apps.

So maybe the pure website is a thing of the past, or it’s targeted as marketing, e.g. corporate websites.

Think about this for a bit, especially with examples, and you’ll see how defining the two is a slippery task.

If you get a clear set of definitions, find the comments and enlighten us all.


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49 Responses to “Website vs. Web App?”

  1. Shishir Srivastava Says:

    All web apps are websites ( or a part of it) but not vice-versa. The rest has already been said above I think.
    -Shishir

  2. Jake Says:

    I don’t agree that all web apps are websites, unless you’re sticking to a very strict definition tied to a domain name and web server.

    Maybe GMail is a website in the colloquial, but I’m not sure developers would classify it as such, given the better categorization of web app.

    Granted, a lot of this depends on English-specific semantics that don’t necessarily translate.

  3. Bob Rhubart Says:

    I’ve run into this discussion in the context of iPhone/iPad apps, particularly with regard to e-publishing. An iPad app may do nothing more than deliver the same kind of content that is available on a web site. So an iPad user can access the content via Safari, or via an app. The New York Times comes to mind, as does Wired. Both are available as web sites and as apps. Accessing the content through the app may provide additional features, but in the end the content is the same.

    At least within the context of the iPhone and iPad, apps make up for the shortcomings of using a browser on a mobile device. The content may be the same, but presenting that content via an app generally allows the user greater flexibility and ease of use.

    Ultimately I think users will come to expect the simplicity and ease of use that is characteristic of mobile apps on their desktop and laptop machines. The new Jolicloud netbook OS uses this approach, and it’s very nice. And isn’t Apple close to opening a Mac app store?

  4. Jake Says:

    I stayed away from mobile on purpose bc it’s too confusing. As you say, an app on a phone could be a packaged version of the website, i.e. not a web app.

    Jolicloud’s OS isn’t new. I covered their alpha a while back, simply an Ubuntu variant with a touch/iOS feel to it. I saw they’re doing a netbook, which is meh for me. I do like their focus on HTML5, but the crowded semi-portable space is too competitive to support them, which inevitably will cause their work to suffer.

    IOS is creeping onto other devices too, bringing its packaged content and walled garden with it. The Apple Mac store is targeted at OS X software, but I’m guessing it will comprise mostly desktop versions of web apps, e.g. Tweetie.

    I’ve no desire to see that world encroach on the real web, which is supposed to unify, not divide.

  5. Gary Myers Says:

    My feel is that a web site becomes a web app when you log in or otherwise ‘authenticate’ yourself to it. That is, a website is generic to everyone and a web application is personal. It knows your name, preferences…

    It’s not a bulletproof definition. If it preserves some sort of session state I’d probably edge that into the ‘application’ category too.

  6. Jake Says:

    Ah ha. I like it, the login makes it an app. There are obvious technical considerations there too, which helps separate the sites from the apps.

    Well played.

  7. joel garry Says:

    site means url
    app implies functionality.

  8. Jake Says:

    Way too narrow, since apps also mean URLs, and implies is pretty weak for a definition. I like Gary’s authentication for apps definition so far.

  9. uvox Says:

    Try defining a “mobile business app”…

  10. Jake Says:

    Everyone wants to talk about mobile apps, thanks to Apple. I guess for me, an app is a longstanding web term that has been marketed as a mobile one recently.

    To your question, enterprises have the additional overlapping term “portal” to cloud the waters.

  11. Dan Says:

    Websites are free. Apps are for sale.

  12. Jake Says:

    Not talking about apps in the mobile phone sense, but rather where the line is for a website vs. a web application. Free and paid doesn’t really help there, since apps like Facebook and Twitter are free. Pretty sure most devs would call those web apps.

  13. Assis Ngolo Says:

    It makes sense, until you stumble into say, picnik.com or aviary.com, which are clearly apps and although they allow and recommend you to login, it is not required for usage. We can look at logins as mainly a necessity to keep track of users and information, but not as a defining difference between apps and websites.

    I think we lost the definition of websites vs web apps because of how sites evolved. I believe that both are simply apps. Back in the stone age, websites were defined as “places” one could browse to, with an address. So a “web” site a location on the “web” where content is stored. Said content can be strictly informational or functional. Functional meaning that at the least, it gets meaningful user input and presents a meaningful response. So, a website can contain/host an app.

    On my opinion:

    Entering information or accepting options is meaningful input. Clicking on next photo isn’t.

    Also, computing meaningful input and returning a result counts as meaningful response. If for all inputs, the response is the same, then its not a meaningful response.

    Source: I have no idea, Redbull perhaps?

  14. Assis Ngolo Says:

    In this case, a mobile app is called an app because it is an application installed on a mobile device that gives you the functionality of accessing and displaying information from a website. Note that some mobile apps access sites that have web apps running on them (ie. facebook, google+, and maybe NYT), but the mobile app does not access the web app, it accesses the information (code, APIs, databases) stored on the website. If you browse to facebook and bookmark the web app on your iphone’s homescreen, right next to the facebook app, How would you define each? Why?

    A web browser is an application that gives you the web, well presented or not (IE, lynx). A web app runs in a browser (ideally, all browsers), a mobile app runs in its target device, a web site hosts the information and most of the computational power for both, and what it provides is access (ideally secured).

  15. Assis Ngolo Says:

    lol, we get carried away between the name of function and the name of the tool. “mobile business app” would be an app running on a mobile device, “used” to “do” business. Stocks for iphone would be a mobile business app, but facebook, even if its a business, is not a mobile business app.

    A portal would be an application/app no? Being a portal is its function.

  16. Jake Says:

    Interesting. Perhaps the difference is lost, as you say. 

  17. Jake Says:

    Portals lost favor in the 90s on the consumer web, but they’re still out there, ahem My Yahoo. I know people who would argue w your assertion that Facebook isn’t a mobile business app.

    This is a fun exercise, even a year later.

  18. Jake Says:

    Reading over your comments, I think I might have an answer. Web sites are perceived to be static, and they used to be when all the browser did was render HTML.

    Now that everything on the web includes not only rendering HTML and CSS, but also executing JS, Java, Flash, Silverlight, etc. we’ve lost the difference between a static site and an app.

  19. Assis Ngolo Says:

    I guess if one uses facebook for social marketing or something of the like, it would be a business app

  20. Jake Says:

    Lots of small businesses have dumped their web presences in favor of FB pages. It’s a business app. I’m not saying this is a good or bad idea, just fact.

  21. Ben Says:

    Having been tasked with defining website vs web app in some guideline documentation at work, I’ve had to put my own thoughts on this to paper, and I feel a lot of it comes to the reason for the development.

    If it was designed with a single purpose, which may or may not have since evolve to include other tasks, but was originally put into motion by a single drive (e.g. “Sell this product”, “Allow customers to pay”), it is an app.

    If it was designed as a set of templates (regardless of technology used, JS, CSS etc) that can just be filled with content to give information to a user, it’s a website.

    Your example of Amazon is an interesting one. For me personally, I would say that amazon.com (.co.uk or whatever flavour you choose) is a website, where as the payment functionality within that website is a web app.

    This can somewhat be reflected in the design process too. When a piece of development is more visually driven around CSS and content management systems, that’s a website. If it’s more about the back-end functionality and services, then it’s an app.

    In my view, to sub-quote Dyson, it’s an app if “form follows function”.

  22. Jake Says:

    Interesting distinctions, thanks for sharing. I tend to agree that purpose drives definition. Serving up and managing content usually dictates a site, whereas DML against a database usually dictates app functionality.

  23. Gesd2gad Says:

    qwer

  24. Rp Neuli Says:

    app would be managed with something like SVN. while a website does not have any organised SVN system for development or management of code.

  25. Jake Says:

    Not entirely true, maybe the basic site doesn’t, but large dot-com properties most certainly do have CMS behind them, complete w versioning and code management, managed by a WEM product like WebCenter Sites.

  26. Marcluv57 Says:

    Obviously a Web site was developed first with computers becuase there werent any mobile devices that you could use. Now that mobile devices are allowed on the internet, the term “App” or “Web app” was created. So a web page, app, web app, are all the same because it brings you to the same exact internet page that you are trying to access. The difference is that Apps are what mobile devices use to store personal information on the device which keeps you logged in; making it availabel to keep you updated on the specific web page that you are logged in as. If you think about an older phone that does not support applications, it still allows you to surf the web and access the same web page that an app would except, you would have to actually type in the URL address everytime.

  27. Jake Says:

    The term web application came about independently of mobile devices and long before smart devices (e.g. iOS, Android) were sucking down bandwidth. The term app has become associated w platforms, but before that, web apps were platform independent. They ran on http.

    Anyway, I think you’re trying to describe the difference between apps (in the iOS, Android sense) vs. mobile web.

    After pondering this for years, I think there are nuances that differentiate sites, pages and web applications, but for the most part, the former two are mostly dead. Modern web presences are far too complex to be sites or pages anymore.

  28. CabForward Says:

    At CabForward, we believe that web apps are intelligent or high-functioning websites. In loose terms, they are capable of learning. As an example, if you look at Amazon.com, which is clearly a web app, it will learn about you as you navigate its pages. It will make recommendations based on what you’ve browsed through or searched for. Basically, it’s smart enough to try to help you find something you’re looking for and, of course, hopefully buy something. But here’s the kicker, from our perspective: Amazon.com can do this whether you’re logged in or not. Using rather simple cookie technology, it can extend its functionality and leverage its learning capabilities beyond the login to the anonymous public user. So, if you shop without logging in, close your browser, and then later return (assuming cookies are not turned off and have not been deleted and same browser and computer is being used), Amazon.com is able to continue your shopping experience as though you never left, making recommendations to you during THIS shopping experience based on your PREVIOUS shopping experiences. This is the line between websites and web apps. Having said that, the majority of the web apps that exist today do not try to learn from their visitors, but these low-functioning, typically older, web apps are fast becoming passé as companies are working harder to learn more about the customers walking through the front door of their online storefront.

  29. Jake Says:

    Interesting example. I think there’s merit in that exception, but generally, a web app requires credentials and generates content dynamically. Unless I’ve forgotten the gist of this old post :)

  30. A web app(lication) vs a website Says:

    [...] said, if you absolutely had to have a differentiator, the best one would be [...]

  31. Jason A. Says:

    I feel like a website is a collective of information and web apps. As in you can have a website with or without web apps. Ex: a simple news website that merely displays articles that are provided by the site admin. Then you could upgrade it by adding web apps to support user accounts, log in credentials, and commenting. Then other users may register, add/edit/delete news articles.

  32. Jake Says:

    Not a bad distinction, maybe the one true thing is the website is a thing of the past. There just aren’t many out there anymore.

  33. A. Litsa Says:

    We need a third word!

    Website (definition 1) – a web property containing information. SEO, information architecture, and visual design promote the accessibility of that information.

    Website (definition 2) – a combination of information and web applications which form a cohesive experience. For example, a retail website contains product information, but seamlessly incorporates a shopping cart web application.

    Web application – a web property that has some specific application to the user. By design, all its features and functionality somehow serve that central purpose.

    I think the strict definition of website has been thoroughly re-purposed, so we need a new term to replace it. What do you suggest?

  34. Jake Says:

    @A Litsa: I like the differentiations you make. We probably need to blow it all up and start over w definitions that work better today, or we could boil it down to “web property” and cut the knot.

  35. Roel Westhoff Says:

    @Jake, for me a webapplication is a that part of a website where the user has a two-way interaction with the website (asking and receiving information and supplying information). The website part of the website (don’t like the wording also) is where the user interacts one-way with the website. Asking and receiving information. All this is regardless of technology, security and or purpose.

  36. Jake Says:

    @Roel: Interesting definition. It’s becoming clear that websites no longer exist. Maybe we should retire that term.

  37. Roel Westhoff Says:

    @Jake. I wouldn’t go so far. For me a website – as written in my previous email – contains of webcontent (one-way communication with the user) and webapplications (two-way communication).

  38. Jake Says:

    @Roel: Sure, but how many of those still exist, i.e. broadcast only properties w no login, social, preferences/customization component?

  39. Roel Westhoff Says:

    @Jake You started the thread with the question ‘what is the difference between a website and web app’ In my point of view the second is part of the first but not necessarily. I introduced the term webcontent as part of a website. I think there are still a lot of websites that only have webcontent (maybe some of it between a logon) but still they only supply the visitor with info. I think it is a matter of definition, but i agree with you that the number of websites with only webcontent is diminishing quickly.

  40. Jake Says:

    @Roel: I’m fine w your definition, works for me. I like it so much, that I’d love to remove website from the lexicon to avoid any confusion.

  41. alkis Says:

    Well if we take as granted that websites use server side scripting languages for their dynamic content and a web app must have offline capabalities (even if it is just to show a “You need internet connection to use this app”), so it must use app cache then the answer is easy. When you are using server side scripting for the dynamic content it’s a site.

  42. Jake Says:

    @alkis: That makes sense. If you look at this post and its comment thread, you’ll find a lot of definitions that make sense.

    And yet, they’re all different, which is why this is still an interesting exercise, even 2.5 years later.

  43. Samir Says:

    Website is run through web browser and design for computer and laptop. Apps hold less and required information. However it perform same functionality as website. Example scotibank.com is website and there is apps for scotibank for your cell phone and iPad. Apps is mainly design for mobile devices.

  44. Jake Says:

    @Samir: So, what’s a web app in your definition? This thread tries to answer the website vs. web app question, not the mobile app one, which is pretty well understood.

  45. Suryakant Gupta Says:

    see website is what where there is no processing at the back end…..
    but where there is the processing at the back end its web application….

    A website is a series of pages or documents that may embed media (images, video, etc) that’s accessed through a web browser over the internet..
    There is only one module thats of adminpanel…
    we can see it, download it,
    but can’t log in into it….
    its not private…its public…
    any one has access to it….

    A webapp is like…mmm….its an application of web where there is the processing of data at the sever side…..
    There are no. of modules including adminpanel…
    what u think facebook is a website…
    if yes then m sorry to say u r wrong….

    and yeah someone wrote it correct that where there is login to take input…thats the web application….

  46. Suryakant Gupta Says:

    and i said for those who thinks that facebook is a website….not you probably…. :)

  47. Jake Says:

    @ Suryakant: Given that definition, I wonder if there are any pure websites anymore. And what about cookies? Even for websites in your mind, cookies sometimes guide backend processing.

    Even so, this is a good definition.

  48. Corbin Says:

    I’ve had this same discussion, as well as the Web App vs Native app discussion. I think the main thing you always have to consider is who the audience is, and where you expect traffic to come from.

    If your idea is a “Pasta Recipes App” that recommends you recipes based on items in your fridge, creating a native app would be nearly pointless. The instict for most is to Google “Pasta Recipes”, not “Open App Store, Search Apps for Pasta, Download App, Search Pasta Recipes”. People will normally do whatever is quickest, and most intuitive.

  49. Jake Says:

    @Corbin: Web vs. native app is a much easier distinction to make than website vs. web app.

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