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What is a Web Application?

James Gallagher - January 04, 2021

Are you curious about what a web application is? It’s not a bad question because web applications, contrary to what most people think, are not just websites. You’ve probably used a web application at some point without even knowing about it.

A web application is a special type of website that uses web browsers to perform a series of tasks. In this guide, we’re going to discuss why web applications are important, how they work, and how they compare to mobile applications. Let’s begin!

What is a Web Application?

A web application is a website that uses the browser as its client. The application could be a calculator, a to-do list, a game, or a more complex tool.

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Web applications allow businesses and programmers to create apps that do not need to be downloaded. You can access and use a web application through the internet. This means that developers do not have to think about building different applications for multiple devices: if a site runs on the internet, it should be compatible across most devices that support a web browser.

Web applications have two components: client-side and server-side.

What Are Clients and Servers?

Web applications are a type of client-server application.

When web developers use the word “client”, they are referring to the way in which a user is accessing a service. Web applications use web browsers as their clients because they are powered by the internet. Mobile applications, on the other hand, use mobile devices.

The client-side of a website is what a user sees. It’s also known as the user interface of a web site. The client-side uses client-side scripting technologies like JavaScript, HTML, and CSS to present a web page to a user. This allows users to interact with web-based forms, see text, and do anything that you would expect to be able to do on a website.

Servers are often considered to be the brains behind a web application. Servers use technologies like PHP, Python, and Java to handle the processes that make a web application work. Servers send the response of a query back to a browser. A server may process payments for an app, or store data that a user has submitted.

How do Web Applications Work?

Web applications, or web apps, are another type of website. This means that they work in a similar way to a traditional website.

When you visit a web application’s website, a request will be sent to that application’s server over the internet. The application server will process this request and return the data that you are looking for. This may be a web page or the result of a database query.

Once the web application has performed the tasks it has received, it will return the data the client has requested. Then, the client’s browser will display that information on screen.

Some web applications are dynamic, which means that they need a special type server to render information. Dynamic websites are sites whose content can change without manual intervention.

Other websites are “static”, which is where the content on a site is already ready to be served. Static applications only need to retrieve data from a server; they don’t need to use databases or dynamic servers.

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There are no shortage of examples of web applications that we could discuss. Hotmail was famously one of the first web applications in the world. Using Hotmail, you could view your email online; a big innovation at the time. Today, applications like Gmail, Google Drive, GitHub, and Twitter are all examples of web applications.

Web applications are designed to work on a range of operating systems because they are served through the web. They’re also designed to be supported by a range of browsers, from Internet Explorer to Chrome. This means that all you need is an internet connection to interact with a web application.

What Are the Benefits of Web Applications?

Web applications allow developers to build widely-compatible applications. When a developer builds a web application, they only need to consider browser compatibility and how the application will render on different browsers. They don’t need to think about building completely different versions of their app for Mac, Windows, and Linux.

Web applications are not installed on a user’s hard drive. This means that you can use as many web applications as you want without having to download potentially large applications. This also eliminates any limitations associated with having limited space on your computer drive.

That’s not all. Web applications are easier for companies to maintain because they can push out immediate updates.

You’ve probably been on a site at some point and noticed that it has changed a few hours later. This is possible because web servers can push changes live, or in real time. If there is a bug on a web application, it can be fixed immediately.

Traditional applications cannot offer this feature. When you download an application to your computer, you must manually update it. Until you manually update your software, you will be behind the latest version. Updates can take up more space on your drive, which means that some users who have limited space available may be unable to download the latest version of a web application.

When Were Web Applications Invented?

Web applications have been around for a long time. They’ve been around since longer than the World Wide Web! In 1987, a man named Larry Wall developed Perl, which has become a popular language for server-side development. This language was one of the first that aimed to move the burden of applications from a client to a server.

There is no single day on which web applications were invented. Most of the earliest applications came around in the mid-90s as more people started to use the internet.

Web applications have come a long way since the ‘90s. Most still operate on the same principle: a server processes a client’s request and a client’s browser shows that information. For instance, Gmail processes your email requests and displays your emails in your browser.

Some less advanced applications can operate without a server, but they usually rely on local storage to store information.

Mobile Applications vs. Web Applications

Mobile applications have been on the rise for a number of years, as more people have started to use smartphones.

Mobile applications are apps that are built for a specific device, such as an Android phone or an Apple iPhone. Mobile apps must be installed through an application store and take up physical space on a device. Web apps, on the other hand, can be accessed on any device. They are not built for a particular system; they are built for the web.

Mobile applications can be faster than web applications because they are native to – or built for – a particular device. Mobile apps can also work offline because they can save data until an internet connection is restored.

However, mobile apps need to be designed from scratch multiple times if you want to support more than one device. They are also more expensive to build than web applications.

Web apps can be automatically updated and are quicker to build than mobile apps. In addition, web applications do not need to be uploaded to an app store, which means they can be launched quicker. With that said, there are drawbacks.

Most web applications do not work offline. In addition, web applications usually cannot access features specific to a device – such as files on a phone or the GPS – unlike web applications.

Wrapping Up

The first websites could only render text, and later some images and styles. However, as more people started to use the web, developers started working hard on new ways to use it. This resulted in the birth of the web application: a type of website that performs a specific task.

Web applications, in contrast to websites, are usually dynamic. This means that you can interact with them, and they usually depend upon a server. Websites, on the other hand, are usually static. Web applications are built on the client side using technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript; they use technologies like Java and PHP on the server side.

Now you’re ready to start talking about web applications like a professional web developer!

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James Gallagher

About the author: James Gallagher is a self-taught programmer and the technical content manager at Career Karma. He has experience in range of programming languages and extensive expertise in Python, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. James has written hundreds of programming tutorials, and he frequently contributes to publications like Codecademy, Treehouse,, Afrotech, and others.

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