What is a web app? Definition and examples

Apps are now a part of everyday life on smartphones and tablets in our modern, digital world. But they’re not just available for mobile devices – apps also exist for desktop computers. These native apps are forms of application software made for a specific platform. Web apps, on the other hand, run on your web browser and function quite differently to traditional native apps.

Web app: definition

A web app (short for 'web application') is usually based on HTML, JavaScript, or CSS. Since they’re loaded by a web server and operated on your web browser, they don’t require installation. But by using a bookmark, you can create a shortcut on your desktop computer or on the home screen of your mobile device to take you directly to the web app.

The spectrum of web apps is huge: some are little, handy tools to help fix small problems, others are web app versions of popular programs (like instant messaging services or office packages), some are graphics software, and others are browser games. Many programs and services take a two-pronged approach, offering two different versions of the same program - one which functions as a web app and another that comes as an installation for a native app.

Web app vs. native (mobile) app

Even though many programs come with two, similar versions of their program, there are a number of differences between web apps and classic native apps. These differences are most prominently in the programming and technical implementation of the app.

Native app

Native apps are programmed specifically for their target platform and so must be installed on this platform too. This could be a mobile operating system like Android or iOS, but it could also be a desktop operating system like Windows. The app market is dominated by native applications for mobile devices, known as native mobile apps (or simply mobile apps).

The main defining feature of a native app is that it’s been developed for a specific platform and so can only work on this platform. So an app developed for Android won’t work on the Apple operating system iOS, meaning it can’t be installed on an iPhone or an iPad. This platform dependency has its pros and cons: if developers want to offer their app to users on several different operating systems, they have to create and program an app for each one – which means a considerable extra effort compared to developing a universally compatible web app. But native apps can be optimized for their specific platform, leading to higher performance. They can also use their host device’s memory, unlike web apps that must rely on web browsers and servers. This makes native apps suitable for more complex applications.

Web app

Web applications can’t be as easily optimized for user devices, but they’re capable of running on all operating systems and devices that support the web app’s chosen web browser (usually all current browsers are supported). This means that in most cases, one single app is enough to offer the program to all platforms - though it’s not always possible to optimize the app for every different browser.

Another plus point lies in the improved safety and reduced risk of security failures. When found on native apps, these security flaws can only be repaired by updating the application via a download from the app store. But a security update for a web application can be implemented into the software directly, meaning that all users have access to the most secure version automatically. Web apps are also usually cheaper and quicker to produce, largely due to the fact that only one version ever needs to be developed.

Because of these differences, there’s no blanket answer for which app format is better. This depends entirely on the requirements and aims of the app developer. The table below offers a summary of the different properties of web apps vs. native apps:

Web apps vs. native apps: overview

  Native app Web app
Platform Platform dependent Not platform dependent
Data storage On the user’s device Usually on the web server – HTML5 web apps can cache their application code and data locally
Functionality of the device Completely functional during use Typically not possible – some web apps can limit access to the device functions
Source of program Download on the app store Load on the website
Installation Necessary Not necessary
Updates Have to be installed (if necessary, the current version of the app will need to be downloaded from the app store) Implemented by the supplier and so are always ready and fully updated for users
Internet connection Not usually required to open and access app Usually required to open and access app, unless the app is cached locally with HTML5

Differences between web apps and websites

So, as we’ve explored, web applications clearly differ from native apps. But how do they differ from actual websites? The differences here are sometimes subtle and hard to clarify, so this is best done by looking at some examples of famous web apps.

Web apps: examples

The most famous examples of web apps would probably be the diverse range of Google services, like Google Maps, Gmail, or even the search engine itself. Amazon’s extensive online presence (the famous online shop, but also services like Amazon Video or Amazon Music) would count, along with eBay (both the online auction portal and eBay Classifieds). Even this tiny collection of examples can demonstrate just how narrow the boundary between a conventional website and a web application can be. But a clearer demonstration of the difference can be found through the example of Microsoft Office Online (formerly known as ‘Office Web Apps’). This web application offers users the option of using the programs included in the Microsoft Office packet (Word, Excel, Outlook, etc.) on their web browsers. This allows you to create, edit, and save different documents – exactly as you would on the desktop installation of the office packet. This is similar to the recently launched ‘Google Docs’ web app, which offers a Google version of the classic text file creators and spreadsheets that can be shared with a number of users via the Google network and stored on the Google Drive.

Connectivity is also a special feature at present: even cutting edge, modern web apps still need a connection to the internet at first, so that they can cache data on the user’s device. Once this is done, web applications which use HTML5 can then operate offline, giving users the same flexibility as many native apps. But this feature is still quite modern, so only a few web apps currently offer it.

Web apps and websites: characteristics

The most concrete example of differences between web apps and traditional websites can be found in the functionality of these online services. Generally, web apps offer a measurable service of some description – a tangible, interactive service for customers to use however best suits their needs. For example, Google’s web applications offer their users a search engine for looking up whatever they’d like, a web e-mail service to customize with their own account, a mapping service that allows them to enter the address they need to find, etc. In the same way, Amazon’s features like their online store and video-on-demand services also bear the hallmarks of a classic web app. 

Websites, on the other hand, usually have a more informative character. They’re typically static - unlike web apps, which contain interactive, action-orientated elements for customization. These could be transactions or requests, or the use of the web app software for specific purposes (office applications, image editing, etc.). Because of their simple use across all platforms, their installation-free function, their external data storage, and their interactive elements, web apps look set to shape the future of internet-based web apps for years to come.