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What’s the difference between a web app and a website?

Posted by Amber Goodenough on December 08, 2010

Do you know the difference between a web app and a website?

I can’t tell you how many times in the last year or so that I have been asked to explain the difference between a web application and a website.  I guess that’s what happens when you start building an app.  I keep trying to explain how it is different than a website but I’m not sure that anyone is understanding what I’m saying so here is my non-geeky way to explain the difference.

We all know what a website is, we use them every day to get information, to read about a particular subject or to see if that Thai restaurant down the street has a menu online (mmmmm Thai food).  This is pretty basic.  My website for fourfour media, gives you information on who we are, what we do and how you can reach us.  There isn’t really any interaction, unless you want to contact me but this takes you away from my site and into your mail application.  So you can see that websites, are what we call “static”, meaning they don’t move or do tricks.

A web app on the other hand is a tool, it does lots of tricks and maybe even improves your life in some way.  Everyone that uses the internet has used an app.  Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps, Gmail, Skype etc.  These are all sites that you interact with.  It helps you do some kind of task or action.  For me my most used apps are Facebook (social networking), Backpack (business organizing tool), Flickr (photo sharing), and HootSuite (Social network dashboard).

Another thing that makes web apps different is that they access some kind of database that stores your information.  Most likely you have to sign in, or create some kind of profile so that they can pull up your information and settings.  For example, Flickr stores all of my photos online so that I don’t have to be at my computer to access my photos from my trip to Italy.  This tool gives me the ability to share my experiences and provides a place for me to organize my photos.   Our new project that we are building is called ClubDivot.com.  This web app is a tool to help you organize tee times with friends, the goal is to add value to your life in some way.

Seems easy enough right?  Website=Information only.  Web app=Interactive tool

And now that you understand the difference between the two, we can throw mobile apps into the mix.  Mobile apps are most likely just a mobile version of the web app.  True, there are some mobile apps that don’t have a corresponding website, they are developed specifically to live on your phone, not on your computer.  But for the most part, companies develop the mobile application to enhance and supplement their website.

What are your favorite apps?  How do they make your life better?