As users come to expect a more rich and interactive user interface when accessing a website the line between both starts to blur.
Unfortunately, there is no clear cut explanation and even the most respected industry leaders have different definitions, but I would like to provide my take on the matter from a business software perspective.
A website is designed to provide a user with information and allow them to make an appropriate action based on that information. The action could be filling out a contact form, purchasing a product, communicating on a forum, downloading marketing information or any other standard functionality you would expect to be able to perform on a website.
For most businesses a website is the main marketing tool that allows potential and existing customers to understand the services they offer in a public facing manner and in the case of e-commerce websites, allow the users to view stock, purchase products, make payments, etc.
In contrast; a web application is product or service which runs within the web browser but has a clearly defined purpose. A web application would usually be highly interactive and in most instances, attempt to replicate the user experience of a typical desktop application through a web browser.
A web application can be a product in its own right or it could be functionality provided as part of a website to increase its capability. Web applications are not restricted to proving users with a single application purpose as you would expect from a traditional mobile app.
In the above definitions, you will notice that I am discussing functionality and user experience. The distribution mechanism and technology can, and in a lot of instances will, be the same for both.
I would imagine that most users can think of a typical definition of a web site: www.eurekasolutions.co.uk, www.amazon.co.uk, www.bbc.co.uk, etc. so I would like to look at some web applications that are available.
In my opinion one of the easiest to define web applications is Google Docs. Google Docs allow you to perform word processing from a web browser. It has a similar look and feel as performing word processing from installed software on a desktop, but it is all performed within a web browser and saved onto a cloud share. It performs the core function of “word processing” through a web browser.
This increasingly popular note taking web application has become hugely popular over the last few years. Evernote does provide multiple mediums including Mobile and Desktop Apps. However, visiting their main website and logging in will take you to a web application which allows you to manage all of your notes.
NetSuite runs on a cloud platform that is accessible from a standard web browser. NetSuite provides the user with a vast number of tasks covering all areas of ERP and CRM, but each task is performed from within the web browser covering the functionality that you would expect from a desktop ERP and CRM system. Core functions such as order processing, accounts, and reporting are all accessible in real time.
Web Order for Sage 200 can be hosted on the web or locally on the server however, it allows the user to quickly and easily enter purchase orders into Sage with all required information accessible through the web browser.
As I said originally there are some grey areas – take www.google.co.uk for example. Based on both of these definitions Google could be described as both a website and web application. It has a sole purpose to allow users to search for information, however it also facilitates the purchasing of products, the ability to select a sponsored site and view images. I will leave it to you to make your own decision.
The introduction of HTML5, CSS3 and AJAX have paved the way for more interactive websites and as web developers make better use of this technology the blur between the two may become even greater. The next time you are surfing the web or accessing software through your browser take a look and see if you can tell the difference.