What is a web app?

My colleague @adactio wrote today about his frustration around the question – what is a web app, along with thoughts following on from a conversation we had yesterday about our mutual frustration of people showcasing HTML5 when they actually mean javascript/browser API et al.

Indeed we all have our thoughts on this web app-ness. So, with a quick glance over my shoulder (my living room is troll free) here goes…

My view of a web app Vs a web site stems from my experiences working at a software company. We had two applications. One written with Visual Basic and it’s successor written in C#. At the time, Microsoft were emerging a new platform called .NET. It was dubbed as being the bridge that would allow desktop applications such as ours to be able to talk to other applications over the interwebs.

This could provide us with an entirely new audience and give us the chance to forge new partnerships with other software companies who wanted to create this app to app chattiness. We liked the idea, we wanted to know more.

After some experiments, we began to wonder whether we should in fact build the next version of our application so that it used a web browser as it’s window, instead of the one that gets launched from the .exe. This would solve our two biggest problems.

We wanted to remove all the tabs we had bloated our GUI (Graphical User interface) with as it had grown and evolved. We also wanted to alleviate one of the biggest gripes from our sales guy when returning from pitches which was that people said it seemed “very small” because physically, it was; compared to their monitor. Could this be a way to provide a more concentrated and focused experience for our users who were busy buying Windows XP machines and 17” (holy shit!!!), 1024×768 resolution (double holy shit) monitors without losing the large number of customers still working on Windows 2000 PCs with monitors that had a maximum range of 800×600?

We had already harmed part of our business by releasing our C# version of the application with an application frame of 1024×768, could this help us bring some of our less technologically capable users along with us on our product journey?

We figured by using .NET; a platform that was sold as being for building applications on the web, we could port our current application(s) into this new online format. After all, our flagship was in VB and that was what ASP.NET used (and very soon after C#). It also meant we would dramatically reduce our development and support costs. No more desktop support (pff), no more runs of update CDs and postage costs, no more deadlines for ‘you must upgrade by xxx’. It seemed a win win.

From this experience, my opinion became that web sites, was a destination with a URL that had read-only content (excluding right click, save as) that was informing you of something and consisted of (at the time) static html pages. A web app was a desktop application; a tool for achieving a certain goal, which ran in a web browser and didn’t require you to install anything locally.

Listening to Jeremy talk about this occasionally, and reading how often the debate comes up, semantically, you could argue that yes, today the two are in fact the same, but our perspective has changed. All destinations online, actually are tools for us to complete a given task. The majority of which is find information on subject X.

But…

If I ask my mum to give me the 5 websites she uses the most she would reply:

Yahoo
Amazon
Ebay
Youtube

If I ask her to give me the 5 web apps she uses the most she would reply:

Intranet at work
Sage
HSBC business banking online

In Contrast if I asked my younger brother (Late 20s) the same questions I would get:

Pitchkfork
The Quietus
The Stool Pigeon
bbc news

And

Soundcloud
Basecamp
BBC iPlayer
Google Maps

Taking that comparison, you could say there is an informed understanding or impression of an web app(lication) and a web site based not far from my own opinions. Both are in some way differentiating informational, or observational content with entering commands into a GUI.

Do I still hold this opinion? What should we take away from this?

Simply put – whoever is using whatever, whenever doesn’t care what you classify your online product/service as, providing it does what they want it to and what you said it would. If they don’t give two flying fucks care why do you?

Published by

Andy Parker

User Experience Designer, headbanger, biker, skater, gamer from Brighton UK.