What is a web application and why do you need one?

Avatar of Andy Jones by Andy Jones , 15 Jun 2021 Custom Software Development, Software Development Company

Every day, UK consumers spend 3.7 hours on smartphones, tablets and computers, with much of that time spent on web applications.

But what exactly is a web application?

In the simplest terms, a web application is a piece of software that runs in a web browser like Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

Web applications are distinct from websites because they enable users to interact with and manipulate the content displayed on the screen.

For instance, an online banking application enables users to perform transactions and interact with their financial data in a way they wouldn’t be able to on a static web page.

Today, web applications are some of the most popular consumer apps on the market, from Netflix to Microsoft Office, Google, Docs and Trello.

With the mobile application market anticipated to reach $366.34 billion by 2027, it appears likely that many organisations will take the plunge into developing web applications.

After all, these consumer-grade applications are just the tip of the iceberg. Web apps provide a medium to offer features ranging from email inboxes to IM services, contact forms, social media platforms, online portals and eCommerce sites.

Now that we’ve explained what exactly is a web application, we’re going to take a closer look at how web applications work, and why you need one.

Why Do You Need a Web Application?

Building a web application enables users to access your application without installing any software. This means they can use your app across multiple platforms and devices without needing to go through a lengthy installation process.

Generally, organisations build web applications when they want to offer users functions or features that they couldn’t provide with a static website.

For example, if you wanted to launch a new social media platform, then you’d need to build a web app to enable users to interact to submit content and view their personalised feed in real-time.

A web application also provides you with a highly interactive channel to engage directly with customers on desktop and mobile apps, no matter what platform they’re using.

You can also monetise this channel through a mixture of in-app purchases, subscription services, advertising and affiliate marketing, to drive revenue.

It’s important to note that monetising your web app can be a very lucrative option.

In fact, global app spending reached $64.9 billion across the App Store and Google Play in the first half of 2021, highlighting that consumers are willing to spend money on in-app purchases if you can offer the right digital product or service.

How does a web application work?

In addition to understanding what exactly is a web application, you also need to understand how a web application works. Web applications are built under a client-server communication model. Under this model, when the user loads the web application, the client sends a request to the server, which handles the client’s request, and executes the tasks requested by the client, storing and retrieving information from a database.

The process is outlined briefly below:

  1. The user visits the URL of the web application.
  2. The user’s request is sent to the Domain Name Service (DNS).
  3. The DNS Service replies with an IP address that the web browser uses to make a request to the application’s IP address.
  4. The application’s web server recognises the request and sends it to storage to locate the queried data.
  5. The response travels back to the user who now sees the web application content in their browser.
Man looking at a web application on an iMac

4 types of web applications

When developing a web application, there are many types you can choose from that each offer different functionalities and experiences to the end-user. Types of web applications include everything from static web apps to dynamic web apps, single-page apps, multi-page apps and more.

Below, we’re going to look at some of the most common types of web applications:

1. Static web apps

Web apps developed with HTML, CSS and JavaScript that are delivered directly to users without any server-side alteration of content. These apps display the same content to every visitor. Static web apps can be used to create blogs, forms and documentation.

2. Dynamic web apps

Web apps developed with languages including AJAX, ASP.NET, ASP and CGI that generate and rewrite page content in real-time. Examples of dynamic web apps include Twitter and LinkedIn.

3. Single-Page applications

Web apps that load a single page and dynamically rewrite the content in real-time. These applications update content for users without reloading the page. Examples of single-page applications include Gmail, Google Maps and Facebook.

4. Multi-page applications

Web apps with multiple pages that refresh as server-side data changes. They are often used to create websites with multiple pages of static information. Examples of multi-page applications include eCommerce websites like eBay and Amazon, as well as blogs and forums.

It’s important to note that these are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many other types of apps that you can use to offer users different features, from portal web apps to animated web apps, rich internet apps and progressive web apps.

Web applications vs native apps vs hybrid apps: What’s the difference?

The main difference between a web application and a native application is that a native application requires installation and is designed for a specific platform or device. In contrast, a web application doesn’t require installation, and can be accessed through a web browser on any device.

Native apps are used in scenarios where a developer needs to optimise performance and user experience for a single platform. For instance, Spotify developed native apps for Windows and Mac to ensure that users could quickly stream music and playlists without long loading times.

However, in scenarios where organisations want to strike a balance between the accessibility of a web app or the high performance of a native app, they will often choose to develop a hybrid app.

Hybrid apps are not only accessible via web browsers, but they’re also installed locally on the user’s device like a native application.

Hybrid apps are ideal for when a company wants to produce an app for a large target audience while leveraging features that are device or vendor specific. For example, Instagram uses a hybrid approach to ensure that users have access to their account media online and offline.

So, what exactly is a web application? It’s a direct channel!

Web apps aren’t just pieces of software that you can open in a web browser; they’re channels you can use to interact directly with your users. By opening up a channel between you and your customers, you can build up a connection that will keep them coming back for more.

We’ve been helping our clients do just that over the years through our own web application development services. If you’d like to find out more about this and how we can help you develop the perfect application for your users, contact us today!

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