Don’t call me DOM

3 August 2010

What is a Web application?

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I was asked recently by Andy Favell from mobiThinking what is exactly a Web application? What distinguishes it from “just” a Web site?

(in that discussion, I distinguish Web apps, i.e. “applications” that run inside the browser, from widgets (in the W3C sense), and in general, Web-technologies based applications: a widget is a packaged/downloadable/installable Web application; as such, it’s closer to a traditional app than a Web app; they share with Web applications the use of HTML/CSS/JavaScript and access to the network as a primary feature.)

I think that struggling to find the boundaries between a Web site and a Web application is only natural, since I don’t think the boundaries are well-defined at all; as far as I know, originally, the word applications started to be applied to Web sites that provided advanced user interactions and capabilities that used to be available only through installable software (à la Google Docs).

One thing that tend to make Web sites look more like applications (in my view) is when they are self-contained, i.e. when they don’t get you to move out of their controlled space (or as little as possible). Under that perspective, I wouldn’t call a search engine or a portal a Web app in general; social network and Web mail are much more likely to fit that constraint.

Personalization as such is probably not a major aspect of making a Web site an application; after all, most traditional applications are only personalized as far as they are configurable, and some are not at all — this of course isn’t to say that personalization is not a major feature of any Web app; it is, and in fact is often a way they can be much more powerful than traditional applications.

What is the link between presenting a bookmark like a launcher and making a Web site an application? Technically, such a launcher is exactly a bookmark; practically, as a user, if you see something among your list of applications, and if it looks like an application when you start it (e.g. in the iphone, when using the <meta name="apple-mobile-web-app-capable" content="yes" />), then you’ll likely perceive it as an application, no matter whether it’s on the Web or not.

In the end, I think a Web site becomes a Web app when the developer presents it that way, and the user buys into that view.

In terms of what makes that story more credible, some of the parameters that seem important to me:

  • self-contained (keep you in their controlled space as much as they can),
  • rich/interactive user interface, possibly mimicking the native UI of the device,
  • using advanced device capabilities (geolocation, camera integration, etc.) — technologies the Device APIs and Policy Working Group is developing,
  • action oriented (rather than information oriented); a tool more than a book,
  • not relying heavily on (or hiding when possible) the browser chrome (back button, reload button, URL bar),
  • working off-line (e.g. using HTML5 ApplicationCache, localStorage, indexed database, …).

There are probably more of these, but that’s the ones that came off the top of my head. And of course, not all Web apps fit all these parameters; I think most of what people would call a Web app fit at least some of these parameters.

But then again, I don’t know that many people bother about categorizing things as “Web sites”, “web apps” or “native apps”; this is in general mostly a pure IT-world discussion, with a pinch of marketing considerations.

3 Responses to “What is a Web application?”

  1. Tweets that mention Don’t call me DOM » What is a Web application? -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Monique Brunel, Dom Hazael-Massieux. Dom Hazael-Massieux said: On the blog: What is a Web application? […]

  2. Eduardo Says:

    Great post, I guess these boundaries between “website” and “webapp” become somewhat blury when the developer implements some functionality into the page, specially when realying heavily on javascript and offline stored data, but even that way, you can also make websites like that and still not provide any really appliable service.

    As you said, as soon as you can make a page that can do something, that has “an application”, you can call it an App.

  3. RPW 12/08/10: CSS3 animation tutoriel, détecter encodage fichier, tester les performances JS | BrainCracking - Veille technologique sur les applications Web Says:

    […] : au fait c’est quoi une application Web ? l’opinion d’un membre très actif du W3C, côté mobiles. En gros on a pris l’habitude de nommer […]

Picture of Dominique Hazael-MassieuxDominique Hazaël-Massieux ( is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Staff; his interests cover a number of Web technologies, as well as the usage of open source software in a distributed work environment.