What is a Web Application?
May 5 2016, 8:30 am
by Wes Sovis
Web Application Definition
At Swell, we talk about web applications all the time. They are the basis of our business, after all. But many folks out there may not be familiar with the differences between the web applications that we make here at Swell from the applications on their smartphones or the applications on their computers. While we could get into the specifics between the different technologies used to create the different types of applications, all that really matters is knowing what qualifies an application as a web app. A web application is an application that is hosted on a server that is accessed and used in a web browser. Since it's accessible via web browser, and they're usually developed using responsive design techniques, web applications are accessible via any Internet-enabled device. An example of a web application is Google Docs - it can be accessed on any laptop, tablet, desktop or mobile phone. There are also native applications for Google Docs for Andriod and iOS, meaning Google Docs can also be considered a native application at the mobile level. Let's find out what that means, shall we?
A native application is an application that is developed for a specific platform, whether it's mobile or desktop-centric. Let's take the world famous application Angry Birds as an example. The version of Angry Birds you download on iOS was developed to interact within the specific closed-source operating system from Apple. That version of Angry Birds will only work on Apple devices. Likewise with the Android version, that version of Angry Birds is native to Android and wouldn't work on iOS. So, while the user experiences on either operating system may appear to be similar, the code that went into making these two very different native applications is likely almost unrecognizable to each other, as they're built to work on very dissimilar platforms.
So, Which One to Use in Development?
Both native and web applications have tremendous upsides when properly developed and deployed, but there are some features that exist in web applications that aren't inherent in native applications. Now, to keep this post from being a novel, we'll work in generalizations. Exceptions to these generalizations certainly exist, but we'll put them to one side for now.
Native applications are wonderful for one-to-one utilization. Think of the applications on your smartphone. It's an application associated with your Apple ID or Google account - you and you alone access these applications. This is for a few reasons, but mostly because if other people accessed your application, say Angry Birds again, they'd ruin your personal progress with the game, or use your accounts to spend a fortune on in-app purchases. So, native applications by nature one-to-one: one application to one user. In the same sense, they can also be considered one-to-one-to-one, as you have one user, to one application, and that application is only accessible on one operating system or platform.
Web applications, on the other hand, are inherently more accessible and foster a great sense of collaboration. For example, take the project management application Trello. Sure, each user has a unique account, but multiple people can access and work on a project in real time. They can access the application on any device, and on multiple platforms. While one administrator controls users, payment, and determines each user's project access, many users have access to a single application. This is very different to the one-to-one accessibility traits commonly found with native applications.
So, why do we work with web applications versus native applications? In business, applications should be easily accessible to foster collaboration, build internal efficiencies and create accountability within departments and teams. The one-to-one nature of most native applications simply cannot provide these attributes. It's for these reasons that we've been building web application solutions for clients around the country for almost fifteen years now. As business becomes more mobile, faster paced, and more digital, the need for web applications will only become more critical to businesses of all sizes.