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Website or web app? What is the difference between the two?

While it's crystal clear what a website is I am still confused about the use (and misuse) of the web app label.

What is to you a web app? What are the peculiar differences versus a website?

The word app it makes one think of a mobile app, so you'd expect from a web app to be as much as similar to a mobile app, not just by its appearance but mainly from an architecture perspective.

So why would you call it web app if it's still just a server-rendered website that perhaps just stay on the same page URL?

What are your thoughts about this?

Top comments (6)

adambrandizzi profile image
Adam Brandizzi

I seems to be quite a subjective distinction but there is some ideas of what each could mean:

  1. A web site is mostly about content. It may be static or dynamic, but we are mostly interested in information from it. The user interactions are about the content. We read (or listen, or watch) it and that's it.

  2. A web app is mostly about interactions and processing. Users are expected to spend a good time giving commands to the app through clicking, typing etc. There is content, for sure, but the most interesting part of a web app is that the computer will do something with it.

Comparing to offline content, web sites are more like PDFs, text documents and presentations: they can be dynamic and interactive but I'm mostly expecting to consume their content. Web apps are more like spreadsheets, forms, inventory software etc.. In fact, the web app concept arose from developers who hacked the old web technology to make pages respond to user input. Many of the things we call web apps today are almost literal translations from old VB/Delphi programs.

In practice, those are overlapping categories., for example, is a web app where we write text, preview it, publish it etc. It is also a web site with a lot of content. When I was reading your post, I was using as a web site. Now that I'm commenting it, it is a web app to me.

So, I'd use these terms mostly to give emphasis on a specific aspect of a web site.

samuraiseoul profile image
Sophie The Lionhart • Edited

I say what Adam says is a pretty good metric of the difference. I think the following might be an easy way to think about it.

A web site would be a wordpress site, that the end user sees, the articles, home page, and about page. A web app would be the wordpress backend content management system that the admins and writers see. A single domain can have both things on it.

jackharner profile image
Jack Harner πŸš€

I like that distinction.

samuraiseoul profile image
Sophie The Lionhart

Thanks, that's mostly how I think about it. Or if I would create a GUI application back in the 90s(providing I wouldn't still be in elementary school) to do the same thing? Then its a web app. :P

genejams profile image

OK, I see few replies and it seems there's a lack of interest in this topic. =) Anyway here it is how I see the concept of web app is evolving.

Like a desktop/mobile applications that start from an executable binary/package that contains all compiled code, resources and assets, also a web app will be able to start from an initial package (or call it bundle).

There are already bunch of sites that do so, but this is not the only requirement.

In fact, a mobile/desktop app usually download raw data from the network, but does never download part or the whole interface because the UI is already provided either by the initial package or by the hosting system (unless we're talking about games).

So a web app, to be really close to the concept of "app", should not download part of the user interface (server-side rendering) when it could just fetch the raw data and then render it client-side.

Server-side rendering is used today to overcome the poor performing DOM when it comes to add or update elements dynamically, especially if this cause frequent layout re-flow.

But I guess that soon mobile browsers will get so blazing faaast that there won't be much difference with native apps for the human eye, so having a bundle compiled with all the JavaScript code, CSS and templates and client-side rendering, it will not be a problem but rather an advantage.

So everything else, not matching this design approach, is still a website or a web application intended in the traditional way of back-end website (like Scott said in his comment below).

Even regarding the emerging technology called "Progressive Web Apps" someone said that PWA are:

Just websites that took all the right vitamins

Which is good anyway, just different.

cheetah100 profile image
Peter Harrison

A web app is an application. Wikimedia is a web app, in that it is an application which serves a specific user experience - a wiki. There are however many web sites which run Wikimedia.