A Detailed Guide to Web Application Development: Everything You Need to Know

Years ago, most web resources were static, but today, it’s more common to see dynamic and engaging web pages that provide interactive experiences. In fact, we are so used to them that we don’t even notice when they come our way. Despite that, the impact of web applications cannot be underestimated. Ever since modern frameworks made it easier to create these apps, they remain a popular choice for developing robust, feature-rich, and fast online solutions. 

Wondering how the process of web application development goes and what makes it different from building websites, mobile applications, and other solutions? If so, keep reading. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the intricacies of web app development, unveiling the key steps, technologies, and strategic aspects you need to know to create a great app. 

What Is a Web App?

A web application, or simply a web app as it’s called, is an interactive software product that doesn’t need installation and can instead be accessed through a user’s browser. It’s stored on a remote server, which means users can open it using any device. 

The unique thing about web apps is that they can come in many different forms. Depending on the needs of people or organizations, they may include different features and functionality to make specific tasks easier and provide users with enhanced experience. Despite that, a few components are common for all of them. They are:

  • Client (or web browser) – this is where the data interactions between the client and the server happen. 
  • Server – a device or program that responds to the client’s request by providing the necessary data. 
  • Protocols – these are a set of standardized rules that define the way the data is transmitted from the web server to computing devices. The two most important protocols are Internet Protocol (IP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). 

Here’s how it works: 

  1. A user sends a request to the server. They can do it through web browsers or other client applications connected to the Internet. 
  2. The server receives the request and instructs the web application server to further process it. 
  3. The application server does what is requested and sends back the result. 
  4. The server displays the result on the user’s screen.

Some examples of web apps you can see every day are online forms, social media, messengers, games, shopping carts, video streaming, and email. 

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Web Apps and Websites: How They Compare 

Since web applications work in a client’s browser, and there’s no definitive way of knowing when you see one (that is, unless you’re a software developer, of course), web apps are often confused with websites. However, they are not the same thing, even though the differences between them may seem rather blurred. 

A website is a static page that displays information in the form of text, photos, videos, audio files, or other types of media content. Websites are not meant to be interactive. The content on websites does not update dynamically, and the only way to display page changes is to reload the page. 

A web application, on the other hand, is a dynamic software product. It can look exactly like a website, but it will always have at least one interactive component. This means you can interact with the app and exchange information with it without reloading the page. A web app can be created to perform one specific task like, for example, Gmail or Google Docs or come with more advanced functionality like Amazon or Kayak.com. 

Other differences between a website and a web application worth mentioning are shared below:

CriteriaWeb ApplicationsWebsites
FunctionalityDynamic and interactive, allowing users to perform specific tasks and manipulate data.Primarily informational or content-based.
User inputMost often, users are required to input data, perform transactions, or engage in complex interactions. Require minimum input. User input is collected through forms or comments.
PurposeWeb apps are intended to facilitate specific tasks or processes, such as online shopping, collaboration, project management, etc.Websites are designed to present information to visitors.
Data handlingThe data is manipulated and processed in real time, often involving complex algorithms and logic. The information is displayed without complex data processing.
Loading and navigationWeb applications typically use AJAX and dynamic content loading, allowing users to navigate without full page reloads. Navigating through a website typically involves loading new pages.
IntegrationSince web apps have a more complex functionality, integration can be quite difficult.Integration is relatively simple.
ExamplesFacebook, Spotify, Uber, Amazon, Trello, and other productivity tools.Online newspapers, breaking news sites, blogs, information sites, etc.

Web Apps and Mobile Apps: Key Differences

Web apps and mobile apps are often mixed up, which is no wonder, seeing how similar they look. Both are designed to provide users with easy access to information and services, and both can be used on mobile devices. That said, there are a number of distinctions that make them different. 

A web application is designed to be accessible from a browser, and it doesn’t really matter which platform you use. A good web app will operate equally well on iOS and Android devices, as well as desktop computers. 

This isn’t something you can expect from a mobile application, though. A mobile app is created specifically for one platform – an iOS native app can only be used on iOS devices. Furthermore, a mobile app, along with the data it contains, is tied to a specific device, which means you’ll need to download it first in order to be able to work with it.

More differences between web apps and mobile applications are covered in the table below:

CriteriaWeb AppsMobile Apps
Platform and accessibilityAccessible through web browsers on various devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.Specifically designed and developed for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.
InstallationUsers access web apps by entering a URL into their browser.Users download and install mobile apps onto their devices before using them.
Development technologyBuilt using web technologies such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.Developed using platform-specific languages and frameworks, such as Swift or Objective-C for iOS apps and Java or Kotlin for Android apps.
PerformanceWeb apps may have slightly slower performance compared to native mobile apps due to browser constraints and network latency.Native mobile apps have better performance as they are optimized for the specific platform and have direct access to device features.
UpdatesUpdates are instant and do not require user intervention. Users need to download and install updates manually or enable automatic updates on their devices.
DistributionAccessible via a URL, making them easy to share. Distributed through app stores, which involves a review and approval process. 

It’s not uncommon for companies to decide to build both web and mobile applications so that they can cater to a broader audience and provide a seamless experience across different devices. 

Web Apps vs. Hybrid vs. Native Application Development

While we’re talking about the differences between different types of applications, we’d be remiss if we didn’t delve deeper into the topic and explore the distinctions between web, hybrid, and native apps in more detail. At the end of the day, each approach to application development has its own advantages, and it’s good to know them to ensure that you’ve made the best choice. 

Native and hybrid apps are two types of mobile applications. Native apps have a rather self-explanatory name. They are built to be native for one particular platform, be it iOS, Android, or Windows, and cannot be used on another one. Hybrid apps, in turn, combine the features of web and native applications. This is the preferred type of app for developers as it is flexible and can be used for different platforms and systems with minimal changes to the script. Instagram is one of the great examples of hybrid apps.  

Now, once we’ve covered what these two types of apps mean, let’s compare them with web applications.

CriteriaWeb AppNative AppHybrid App
PlatformAccessible through web browsers on various devices.Developed specifically for a particular platform.Utilizes web technologies but is packaged within a native app shell.
InstallationNo installation is required.Requires installation from app stores.Requires installation from app stores but relies on web technologies.
PerformanceGenerally, it has slightly slower performance compared to native apps.Optimal performance as it is optimized for the specific platform.Slightly slower performance compared to fully native apps.
Access to device featuresLimited access to device features; relies on browser capabilities.Full access to all device features and capabilities.Can leverage native device capabilities through plugins.
DistributionAccessed via a URL.Exclusive distribution through app stores.Distributed through app stores.
TestingWeb apps are tested for UI, connectivity, and compatibility for seamless UX.Testing native and hybrid apps involves screen, compatibility, gesture, and networking testing, in addition to others.

As we’ve reached this part of the guide, we hope that now you understand how web applications are different from other solutions and will be able to recognize one in a blink. 

Aren’t sure which solution to choose? Don’t hesitate to share with us your goals and ideas, and we’ll help you make the right choice.

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Benefits of Using Web Apps

If you’ve been only working with websites, the popularity of web applications may not be something you can easily understand or explain. However, it’s not for nothing that more and more business owners and developers are now turning to web apps instead of traditional websites. Here are just a few of the benefits that tip the scale in favor of web-based application development:

  • Cross-platform compatibility. One of the best things about web applications is that they are compatible with pretty much any modern device. Desktop computers and laptops running Windows, macOS, or Linux, mobile phones and tablets with iOS or Android on board — for a web app, the type and operating system of the device don’t matter.
  • Wide accessibility. As a person developing a web app, you don’t need to worry about publishing your app on app stores and taking extra steps to conform to the app store requirements. Users, in turn, don’t need to install the app, which may be a problem for devices with limited storage, or regularly update the app to keep it working properly.
  • Customization and scalability. The mutable nature of web applications allows developers to make necessary changes easily without reworking the entire application architecture. Moreover, web applications are the perfect option if you plan to scale your product in the near future and want the most cost-effective way to do it.
  • Lower development cost. The cost of developing a web application may be higher than the cost of developing a traditional website, but it cannot even be compared to the typical budget for developing a native app. Plus, a native app will require constant maintenance and updates to remain competitive, while a web app typically has more longevity.
  • Improved security. With traditional desktop or mobile applications, which store most of their data on the user’s device, safety concerns are completely justified. If a device gets lost or stolen, a stranger can get access to sensitive information not meant for public view. This is not a concern with web apps that store the data securely in the cloud.
  • Faster development and deployment. The frameworks and tools used for web app development allow for quicker development cycles compared to native applications. This can be a competitive advantage for businesses looking to get their products to market faster and respond quickly to market shifts.
  • Integration with third-party services. Web apps can easily integrate with a variety of third-party services, APIs, and tools, an advantage developers can use to enhance the functionality of their apps while saving time and effort in development. 
  • Consistent user experience. Last but definitely not least, web apps provide a positive experience for users and help in building brand recognition. No matter what device they use, they are going to see the same interface and features, which will give them the feeling of consistency and foster loyalty.

Types of Web Apps

There are different approaches to categorizing web apps. You can categorize them based on their purpose, architecture, and other characteristics. Here are the most popular types of web applications and their uses.

Static web applications

In a static web app, users receive the necessary data in their browsers without using the server. Static web applications may not give developers as many possibilities as other types of web apps, but they come with a number of benefits that make them important, such as easy and rapid development, high flexibility, effortless scalability, and lightweight architecture.

Examples: The New York Times, CNN, Forbes, and so on. 

Dynamic web applications

A dynamic web application generates data in real-time based on the end user’s request and the server’s response. The information in a dynamic web app is constantly updated, providing developers with an easy way to give the customers what they want. A dynamic web application may take more time and effort to develop and maintain compared to a static web app, but its versatility makes it worth it.

Examples: YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, TikTok.

Single page applications

A single page application delivers content using just one web page, which doesn’t need to be reloaded to display new information. Single web page applications rely on the browser rather than the server to create and display data, making them easy and fast to load. Despite their seemingly basic architecture, SPAs provide virtually unlimited capabilities to developers and product owners and are constantly upgraded.

Examples: Gmail, Google Maps, Twitter, GitHub, etc.

Progressive web applications

Just like a single page app, a progressive web application runs from a single page without having to reload it to fetch new information. This, and the fact that SPAs and PWAs are often built using the same languages and frameworks, leads many people to think that a progressive web app is simply a more generic version of a single page app. However, this is a very simplified approach. 

In reality, PWAs are more functional than SPAs and provide a better user experience, even though they are more expensive to develop. Moreover, a progressive web app can be run without an internet connection using the cache, which a single page application cannot do.

Examples: Uber, Tinder, Starbucks, Pinterest, Spotify, and more. 

Tech Stack Used to Develop a Web App

These days, the most popular way to build digital products is to use ready solutions such as CRMs, CMSs, or ERPs, depending on the domain of an application. In fact, 90% of all web apps are built that way. Ready solutions not only help save a lot of time, providing development teams with a quick way to bring new web apps to market, but also don’t require a lot of technical background, so even those not fluent in programming languages can create a simple application in a relatively short time. 

The choice of a software system mainly comes down to the purpose of an application. Here are the main types of solutions to choose from:

  • CMS – it is typically used for websites like news and blogs where a user needs to create, modify, and manage a lot of content. 
  • CRMs – it is a popular choice among websites tailored at eCommerce or customer support services. CRMs help collect customer’s data such as names, emails, phone numbers, and so on, allowing businesses to use this information for further interactions. 
  • ERP – in case you’re looking to build a website for an organization that would allow you to register employee’s data, track hours of work, wages, and integrate all day-to-day business processes in one place, you may opt for an ERP.

Besides these three, we should also mention page (or website) builders, another popular alternative used for building web applications. Page builders allow you to build simple solutions without programming skills. These can be CMSs or website builders like WIX and Squarespace, featuring a drag-and-drop interface and pre-designed templates with customization options. 

With ready-made templates, building a dynamic web application hardly takes longer than a few hours. Once the app is ready, the only choice left to make is the choice of a hosting provider. In general, companies have three options:

  • On-premise servers – this involves hosting an app on servers located within the organization’s premises. Most often, on-premise servers are used by large enterprises that have no budget constraints and can invest in infrastructure and maintenance of on-premise hosting. 
  • Cloud-based servers – scalability, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness are the main advantages of cloud-based hosting, making it a preferred choice among small and mid-sized organizations. The beauty of cloud-based servers is that they allow you to easily scale resources up or down based on demand and pay only for what you actually use. As a downside, their security isn’t as robust as on-premise servers in some cases. 
  • Dedicated server in a data center – businesses requiring greater control and optimization usually purchase or lease physical servers in third-party data centers. This option is safer than shared hosting, but it’s also more expensive and requires expertise in server maintenance and management.  

Most website builders already include site hosting as part of their service offerings. For example, both WIX and Squarespace are cloud-based page builders that provide integrated hosting solutions for the websites built on their platforms. This makes the process of web app development much easier, as there’s no need to choose a separate hosting provider and manage server configurations. 

However, ready solutions, no matter how helpful they are, don’t offer a one-size-fits-all approach. While they allow some room for customization, they may still be rather restrictive in terms of customization options and scalability compared to building a custom web application from scratch. Moreover, with website builders, not all features can be brought to life. Therefore, about 10% of businesses still opt for custom development to implement unique features, advanced integrations, and complex functionalities to stand out from the crowd.  

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In custom web app development, the common components of the tech stack include front-end, back-end, and database technologies. Let’s explore some of the popular technologies used in each of them. 

Front-end technologies

The front-end part of a web application is responsible for the user interface and, ultimately, customer satisfaction and, therefore, requires special attention from web app developers. There are successful web apps created by using HTML and CSS, but there are many other tools, primarily from the JavaScript family of frameworks and libraries, that provide even more usability and style:

  • React – a JavaScript library that is ideal for building large-scale, dynamic web applications with robust functionality.
  • Angular – a JavaScript library that is best suited for creating dynamic web apps and static apps with the use of HTML.
  • Node.js – a cross-platform JavaScript runtime environment that can be indispensable for building scalable web applications.
  • Vue.js – a JavaScript ecosystem that provides a wide range of options for building large and powerful web apps.

Back-end technologies

The back-end part of a web application is something most users will never see, but it has a direct impact on the speed, stability, performance, and security of the app. Here are the back-end technologies commonly used to develop a web app:

  • Laravel is a PHP web application framework that suits most small projects and provides all the features you need to build modern web applications.
  • Node.js/Express/Nest – these are best used for small and mid-sized projects.
  • .Net Core – a framework used with Microsoft-based solutions.
  • Go – a programming language that is best suited for the implementation of solutions with lots of queries and requests. 
  • Django – a framework that is often used when there’s a need for a default admin console for simple management.

Database technologies

The importance of a secure, stable database that can be easily accessed by the back-end cannot be overrated. Here we usually select technologies according to our clients’ business needs, choosing between relational or NoSQL databases. 

With years of experience of working with all popular technologies and frameworks, our team can bring any web app to life.

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