What Is a Web App? Here’s Our Definition

Do you know what a web app is? Do you know what’s used to make it? Covering web apps on Web.AppStorm isn’t quite as straight forward as you might think. There are many different technologies that are used to create web apps of many different types. Flash, JavaScript, HTML5, PHP, Java, Silverlight, web services vs dedicated applications… what qualifies as a web app and what doesn’t?

I occasionally receive comments stating that certain web apps aren’t actually web apps, when indeed they are. So, I would like to take a moment to clear things up and give you our take on what a web app really is.

Web App: Our Simple Definition

Though fully describing what a web app (application) is can be lengthy, ours description is quite simple.

A web application is an application utilizing web and [web] browser technologies to accomplish one or more tasks over a network, typically through a [web] browser.

Let’s Break It Down

  • Application [Software]:Application software, also known as an application or an ‘app’, is computer software designed to help the user to perform singular or multiple related specific tasks.” – View on Wikipedia
  • Web technologies: Flash, Silverlight, JavaScript, HTML & CSS, Java, various other programming languages and other computer technology intended for the use across networks.
  • Network: The internet or intranet. see Wikipedia description
  • Browser: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, Internet Explorer and various others. see Wikipedia description

The Chrome Web Store Confusion

With the introduction to the Chrome Web Store (CWS), web apps are being introduced in a more organized and formal manner to people without a full understanding of what a “web app” is and will typically apply their understanding of desktop apps instead.

Chrome Web Store

Chrome Web Store

Since the introduction of the CWS, I’ve had an increasing number of people tell me that apps listed in the CWS that are essentially bookmarks to existing web apps, aren’t actually apps because they don’t use Chrome to run. That’s silly!

The apps these people are talking about are no less web apps than the apps built to run specifically in Chrome.

It’s Just a Flash Game



The most common apps I’ve been told aren’t actually web apps are Flash-based games, especially those listed in the CWS.

Although Flash may have made a bit of a decline as HTML5 has matured and developed, it’s no less a core element of the web and accounts for a massive number of web apps — many entirely Flash-based.

Adobe AIR & The Desktop

Along the same lines as Flash, Adobe AIR has been a confusing mixing point between web apps and desktop apps for many people. Although AIR apps run from your desktop, they’re generally still considered web apps because they’re built using web technologies such as Flash, HTML and JavaScript, and many of them perform functions that require access to the internet.

One massively popular AIR application is TweetDeck, which now also has a Chrome-specific version.

TweeDeck for Chrome

TweeDeck for Chrome

So, although the AIR version of TweetDeck is a desktop-running app, it can also be considered a web app, even though it doesn’t run directly in a browser. Want more examples? Take a look at these 10 Kick Ass Adobe AIR Apps we pulled together not too long ago.

Web Service vs Web Application

Different web application technologies aside, the most confusion as to what qualifies as a web app comes from so many websites out there with varying degrees of usefulness. It’s clear to most people that if you log into a website, such as Pixlr.com, you’re then using a web app. But what about those websites that are nothing more than basic services? Perhaps phone directories or other informational sources?

Most of these are indeed web apps. I always ask myself, “Does it do something?” Even if it only does something small and specific, it’s still a web app. Google’s search engine is a web app, yet its root concept is hardly different from a phone directory that enables you to search names or numbers.

With that being said, not all websites are web apps. If it doesn’t perform some sort of task, functioning in some way, it’s probably not a web app.

Final Thoughts

Often times the continually blurring lines between web apps and desktop apps are what confuse those less familiar with the different technologies, especially as web apps continue to become more powerful, encroaching on their desktop counterparts. And although I don’t expect the majority of the population to understand, or even care about, these differences, I certainly hope this “web app” blurb will help at least some people.

What do you personally consider to be a web app? What do you think doesn’t qualify as a web app? There’s certainly a large gray area between the many different types of web sites and what qualifies as a web app. What kind of websites do you think qualify?