What is a web application?

A web application is an application that runs on the web via a web browser like Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. You access a web application in exactly the same way you would a regular website; by typing a web address into the address bar of your web browser of choice.

Rather than discuss the wider aspects of more commercial high-end web applications from the likes of Microsoft, SAP or Seibel, I’ll instead concentrate on the general aspects and features, giving you a broader overview of what a web application is.

What’s the difference between web applications and desktop applications?

The most fundamental difference is that you won’t have to install a web application onto your computer — nor will you have to double-click an icon to start it!

There are several key differences between a web application and a desktop application:

  • As mentioned, you’re unlikely to install a web application onto your computer.
  • Because a web application exists (is hosted) on the web, you can access them from almost any location where you have access to an internet connection and a suitable web browser.
  • Most web applications allow for teams of people to work together, sharing the same data & information.
  • Software licenses are often more flexible than their desktop equivalents; modest “per seat” licenses or no license fees at all.

What are the advantages / benefits of a web application?

Certainly from a business perspective, having a web application written specifically for your business means you’re unlikely to be paying for features that you don’t want, as is often the case when you buy off-the-shelf application software like Microsoft Office, for example.

Assuming you’re having a web application developed for your business, the advantages / benefits of a web application are:

  • When you have a web application developed for your business, your needs are being addressed specifically.
  • By automating key business processes, you and your team can save valuable time.
  • Far greater work capacity, so you can commit to higher work volumes without increasing working time.
  • A web application should help towards reducing data errors, loss and duplication.
  • The potential for much higher efficiency across any / all business processes that have been automated by your web application.
  • A web application will free up valuable computer resources, allowing key staff to work remotely.
  • An increase in the accuracy of data entry and manipulation.
  • Measurable cost savings over time (greater ROI).

There are also a number of differences that can be considered disadvantages:

  • While web application software is now very sophisticated, certain standards that govern the way a web page is assembled and viewed by the web browser means there can be inconsistencies between the different web browsers, in some cases even leading to a web application simply not working at all.
  • Since web applications exist on the web, they may be vulnerable to attacks and exploits that could compromise sensitive commercial databases and customer details.
  • If your internet connection is faltering, or the host is experiencing issues, you may not have fast or complete access to your web application.

Some of these negative factors can be mitigated to some extent, but it is impossible to remove all of the issues completely.

Testing a website or web application

Any website or web application should undergo rigorous testing stages to ensure maximum compatibility with the web standards and the web browsers you anticipate are most likely to be used by your users.

Reducing security issues

When developing a web application, there are number of standard programming methods and guidelines that can significantly reduce the likelihood of a successful intrusion, possibly compromising sensitive data.

What’s a typical web application?

Almost any kind of desktop application can be turned into a web application (given enough storage space and bandwidth), with the addition of the advantages outlined previously.

Typically, web applications for SMEs (Small-to-Medium Sized Enterprises) would be:

  • Job ticketing, auditing, billing and invoicing.
  • A CMS (Content Management System), for managing web pages for a website, or a corporate network.
  • Selling products / services on-line (more often referred to as e-commerce).
  • Managing digital assets like video, audio and photography.
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems.
  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems.

How does a web application work?

The application itself exists on a web server, which is essentially a computer used specifically for hosting (or serving) web pages from websites, or in this instance web applications.

Unlike a website, there are no web pages as such (certainly not in same way as a website), although you will move from one web page to another, those web pages are often virtual, in the sense that they are created instantly for the purposes on a particular task.

A typical web application will:

  • Have a sign-in screen, with accounts for each user, each user in turn may (or may not) have different permissions to access different parts of the web application.
  • Because the principle function of most web applications is to manage data, it is common for the user to be entering data into form fields, or otherwise managing previously entered data.
  • Once the data has been processed in some way, then that data (or digital asset) is often exported out in some other fashion.
  • This manipulation of data may be in the form of reporting, data analysis, generating charts & graphs, or simply saving the data for use in Microsoft Excel, for example.
  • If it is a requirement that the data processing be shared amongst a team of people, it may be a requirement for there to be some form of reporting and annotation, so that each user can explain to or receive reports from other users, relating to their activities.
  • There may also be the need to send reports or other notifications via email from within the web application itself, to a client for approval, as an example.
  • In the vast majority of cases, a web application will save the most if not all of its data to database of some description.

Are web applications cost-effective?

In the short-term, a web application will most likely be an expensive commitment, both for the initial planning stage and the subsequent development of the application itself, but offering a superior ROI (Return On Investment) over the long-term.

Additionally, to ensure that the web application itself meets with the specific requirements of those who’re going to be using it most often, a commensurate commitment of time is required by those parties, to outline their needs in detail to the developer.

In conclusion

As the internet deepens its penetration into our personal and professional lives, permeating our living rooms and our offices, we demand ever more agile and flexible tools.

Also, being on the move is no longer the barrier it once was. With the help of mobile devices like the Apple iPhone, RIMs BlackBerry and other smart phones, we can work from almost anywhere, wirelessly in some cases.

However, all of this flexibility counts for very little if our business requirements are held hostage by inflexible software that doesn’t meet our specific needs.

In time, as the cost of mobile communications continues to fall, coupled with ever more inexpensive software development tools and hosting fees, web applications will become more and more common place in businesses of all sizes — businesses just like yours perhaps?

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