Website vs. Application

Posted September 17, 2014 by Annie Pearce in Development

If you're new to the web development industry or are looking to hire a contractor to develop a website for you, you might not quite understand the difference between web applications and websites. How are these different? Are there different technology skills required for each? Until I started working at vaporware, I didn't quite understand the difference between the two. Not all websites are applications. But all web applications are websites. Confused yet? Let's see if I can clear it up.

A web application is something that is interactive. It is more than simply presenting information. An application allows a user to be involved, either by providing their own content or performing a transaction. Some examples include: Facebook, eBay, Twitter, and GitHub.

A web application is much more involved in the development. While front-end design, like User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design and copy writing skills are involved, the bulk of the time is spent on functionality and features, which include backend server and/or frontend application development in technologies like PHP, Rails, and JavaScript. A web application is very comparable to software engineering. While you may find a self-taught HTML developer working on web applications, a deeper understanding of algorithms , systems, and software architecture is quickly required as applications grow in functionality or scale in use.

A website, on the other hand, is simply informational. It contains static content that is changed when the owner of the site decides. A user can navigate through the website, but cannot provide any input to its content. A website does not have much as much functionality behind it. Some examples include the NY Times, HQ Raleigh, and even our own portfolio.

A static website's development often encompasses fewer technologies, with many sites building on existing platforms - like WordPress or Drupal - or even totally static sites where files are being edited on a file system - with raw HTML and CSS. There are a slew of technologies to speed this up and improve on the decades old system of static Internet webpages, like HAML, Sass, and CoffeeScript, and even new armies of web hosting technologies and platforms like cPanel, Shopify, Wix, GitHub, and Middleman, but the core concepts of website development are still the same as they were 10 years ago. Let's display some content on a website.

One way of explaining the difference is that a web application is a website where users have the control. And let's face it, in this day and age, users are demanding more control. So it shouldn't be a surprise that they are getting what they want.

Today the majority of websites are a combination of the two. For example, Instagram merges a simple website with an application. When you first enter the site, your main choice is to simply log into the portion of Instagram that everyone is familiar with - an application. But at the bottom of the page are different static pages, like an about us page, that reads like an informational brochure - a website.

Here at vaporware, we build web- and mobile-based applications. This is what we find both exciting and challenging. Our services do include a little bit of website content work, but our passion is in creating custom applications from scratch.

If you think that your company is in need of a custom application, don't hesitate to contact us. Or you can visit one of our co-founders Dan Moore, who holds office hours at HQ Raleigh (310 S. Harrington Street) every Thursday from 3 pm to 4 pm.


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