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Web apps vs. websites, no-code edition

October 23, 2023

Unpack the evolution and key differences between no-code web apps and websites in this guide. From the first-ever website to the rise of specialized SaaS platforms, get insights that help you decide which one you should build.

The internet's landscape has evolved. A lot. Gone are the days when websites were the be-all and end-all. Web apps are the equally critical counterpart to websites in your (and our) life. No, they're not the same, and yes, you should care about the difference, especially if you're planning to build something yourself.

This loooong article will take you through every single detail you need to know about them, and then some. 

Where it all began for websites and web apps

Let's dive into the past for a moment. 

We're venturing into the timeline where the Internet was a fledgling and the concept of a "web app" was as alien as an iPhone 16 to a '90s kid. The history of websites and web apps is a narrative of how human interaction with digital platforms has evolved.

Phase 1: The dawn of websites

Let's rewind to 1991 when the World Wide Web went public. Websites were initially static, essentially digital brochures. The term "webmaster" was popular, and this individual had the Herculean task of manually updating HTML files. Remember Geocities? That was considered cutting-edge. If you had spinning gifs and a visitor counter, you were the bee's knees. But these were simpler times. Websites were informational endpoints, not interactive experiences.

The very first website ever, recreated by CERN, of all things.

Phase 2: The dynamic shift

Fast forward to the late '90s and early 2000s. PHP, JavaScript, and the birth of dynamic websites. No longer were sites just digital pamphlets. You had forms, basic interactivity, and the genesis of what we'd later call "user experience." 

The line between websites and web applications started to blur around this time. Sites like eBay and Amazon began offering complex functionalities that went beyond mere information sharing. This was the transitional era.

The very first eBay page. Notice how online ads were already a blight upon humanity.

Phase 3: The rise of web apps

As we rolled into the 2000s, the concept of web applications started to solidify. We're talking about platforms like Salesforce that came in 1999, Gmail in 2004, and Facebook in 2004. They were applications run through the web browser. They offered an interactive experience comparable to desktop applications, without requiring you to install bulky software.

The advent of AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) was a game-changer here. Why? Because it allowed web pages to update information without needing to reload the entire page. That level of seamless interaction is what sets web apps apart from traditional websites.

Gmail of the olden days. Not much has changed, in fairness.

Phase 4: Mobile revolution & responsive design

Ah, the smartphone era. Once the iPhone hit the market in 2007, the mobile revolution was in full swing. The concept of responsive design emerged as a response to this trend. Websites and web apps started to adapt to smaller screens, leading to a more unified experience across devices. This is also when the concept of Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) began to gain traction, offering app-like experiences in a web browser.

Funny how one of the first companies to introduce Responsive Web Design was Audi, and not some IT mogul.

Phase 5: Specialization & SaaS boom

Fast forward to the 2010s. Websites are still around for content-based services, blogs, portfolios, and the like. Web apps, however, have become more specialized, thanks to the SaaS (Software as a Service) model. 

With platforms like Slack, Trello, and Shopify, web apps have become integral to business operations worldwide.

Shopify, fossilized. Veeery slick for 2010, right?

Phase 6: Convergence & future trajectories

Today, the line between websites and web apps is fuzzier than ever, thanks in part to the technologies that make it easy to blend features of both. Static Site Generators, APIs, and the JAMstack architecture have made it easier to create dynamic, app-like experiences within traditional websites.

Now, it's all about integration and interoperability. With the advent of the Internet of Things and machine learning capabilities, both websites and web apps are becoming smarter, more contextual, and more personalized. 

We would provide an example here, but literally anything you see online today is it. 

What is the difference between a web site and a web app?

There are key distinctions between web apps and websites you need to grasp. 

Web apps operate on a give-and-take model: you ask, they deliver. Take online gaming as an instance. You enter your preferences—let's say, a specific game genre—and the app searches its database. The subsequent screen displays your options based on the search parameters. You either get what you're looking for or a message saying, "Nice try, no dice. Want to search again?"

Let's switch gears and consider Airbnb. You enter your destination, your dates, and the number of guests. Hit 'search,' and voilà, you're presented with a list of available lodgings. Select one, input your check-in/check-out dates, pay up, and you're good to go. It's this interactive aspect that differentiates web apps from traditional websites.

Now let's delve into some nuances. 

Web apps are interactive platforms that allow you to do stuff, not just read stuff. You can customize data, delete your crappy posts, or whatever else you're inclined to do.

Often you'll find a search box, possibly accompanied by filters to narrow down your queries. You may even discover that your searches are saved for future reference. No, it's not black magic; it's cookies. Web apps use them too, much like websites, to enhance your user experience.

What's more, web apps often offer the functionality to create accounts, interact with other humans, send messages, and so on. 

So what do we go for—a web app or a website?

You're deciding between a web app and a website, and you're tangled up in a web of jargon and options. Here's the lowdown on why you might need one over the other, peppered with some essential features you can't ignore.

Web apps

Web apps streamline complex processes, saving you time and preventing the headaches that come with errors. Imagine running an online marketplace; a web app can handle transactions, user queries, and inventory management, all from a single interface. The shift here is from merely informing visitors to enabling interactions.

Got a diverse user base? Web apps can segregate them into categories like admin, premium, and standard users. These categories can dictate the levels of functionality accessible to each user.

Websites

Websites are like online brochures. They serve a specific purpose, mostly informational, and aim to convert visitors into customers. Websites are designed to fulfill specific roles and are usually static in nature.

You don't need a PhD in computer science to build a decent website. With intuitive website builders, even your grandma could whip up a site. Websites are simpler to construct and maintain.

Going for a website

You've got skills, services, or information you're dying to share. What better way than through a website? Numerous website builders out there can make you a decent site in less time than it takes to finish your morning coffee. You save both time and money, freeing up resources to think up new strategies for world domination—or your next business move, whichever.

A well-optimized website acts like a magnet for new customers by ranking well in search results. You get a steady influx of new leads, and you didn't even have to lift a finger.

Going for a web app

Websites display information but don't let you interact much. Web apps like Airbnb, however, are a whole different animal. You can log in, shop, message, the whole thing. They're built for hands-on engagement.

From chatting to shopping, they do it all. Websites, however, are more like a screwdriver—useful but limited. They provide basic details like contact info, pricing, and maybe a few pretty pictures. Web apps demand user interaction, so they're inherently more complicated. 

Websites often let you browse without making it 'Facebook Official.' No need to sign up or authenticate. Web apps, however, usually need some form of ID because they deal with personal data and more complex features.

Web apps require pre-checks, sprints, and post-checks. But hey, there's light at the end of this complex tunnel: no-code web apps. Platforms like Directual make life easier by offering pre-built templates and integrations, shaving off development time.

Speaking of which…

Building a web app with Directual

Let us show you its features! 

First up, Directual offers no-code database and API-building features. Translation: You can create scalable NoSQL databases without writing a single line of SQL. You can configure objects' fields and data structures super easily.

And if you're worried about security, don't be. Directual is designed with enterprise-grade safety features. Want to host a truckload of files? Piece of cake. You can pick from various CDNs around the globe to make sure your users can download stuff fast.

With Directual, you can tailor user data structures, implement role-based access, and even enable logins via third-party services like Google or Facebook. Imagine creating a platform where admins, general users, and guests all have different levels of access, dynamically adjusting based on their behavior—Directual lets you do that.

We're all familiar with REST APIs, right? If you want your API to only accept data that's been filtered or validated, Directual’s got your back. And if you're into webhooks (and who isn't?), Directual makes trigger-based data exchanges easy.

Finally, let’s talk UI. Directual’s web-page builder enables you to create visually appealing web apps quickly. So if you’re about to tell me you don’t know how to code, save it. You don’t need to. You can also make your app look however you want, thanks to customizable color schemes and design settings. Plus, the platform is built on lightweight ReactJS, so your web pages will load faster than you can say, "Why did I ever try to code this myself?"

Oh, why talk and talk? Just see for yourself:

Where web apps and websites are headed

Alright, now that we've covered the what and the why, let's throw a curveball into the mix: what about the future? Let's explore where both web apps and websites might be headed and why you should care.

Progressive web apps

In the red corner, we have progressive web apps again. Google's been pushing for this big time, and for good reason. You get high performance, reduced data usage, and platform independence. Companies like Twitter and Uber and many others use this type of app in their day-to-day. Directual public roadmap tells us that PWA feature is coming very soon! 

Accessibility

Digital accessibility is becoming a must-have. We're talking about features that make your digital presence user-friendly for people with disabilities. For instance, a website that reads its content aloud to visually impaired users is becoming the norm. There are legal implications too. If your digital presence isn't accessible, you could be facing lawsuits. Yeah!

Citizen devs

You're going to see a lot more drag-and-drop options, not just for web apps but also for standard websites. 

Why? 

Because not everyone wants to learn Python or Ruby on Rails, that's why. With no-code/low-code platforms, businesses can deploy digital products, freeing up their tech teams to work on more complex, value-added tasks. It's a win-win. Besides that, nowadays, all it takes is a few prompts to get your app up and running. 

Chatbots

Immediate engagement. Users don't have to leave your site or app to get the help they need. Plus, a well-designed chatbot can handle multiple customer queries simultaneously—something that would require a whole team of customer service reps.

Fast content

You're familiar with Stories on Instagram, or Snapchat, right? Well, ephemeral content (stuff that's only available for a brief period) is making its way into the broader audience. It's all about creating a sense of urgency. In the coming years, expect to see more websites and web apps integrating this kind of time-sensitive content to keep users engaged and coming back for more.

Afterword

Thank you for taking the dive into this outstanding topic that a lot of people are still confused about. Don’t forget that regardless of your target—a nice website or a kickass web app—Directual can help you get the most out of your endeavor. 

If you’d like to learn more about getting started, shoot us a message at hello@directual.com, or better yet, head into one of our communities—the links are in the footer below.

FAQ

What Is the difference between a web app and a website?
What Is the difference between a web app and a website?

Websites are mostly informational platforms designed to provide content. Web apps, on the other hand, operate on an interactive model. They allow you to perform tasks, customize settings, and engage in real-time activities. For instance, Airbnb lets you search and book lodgings, a functionality you'd be hard-pressed to find on a traditional website.

What role do no-code platforms play in web app development?
What role do no-code platforms play in web app development?

No-code platforms like Directual have simplified web app development by offering pre-built templates. You can build scalable databases, set role-based access, and create APIs without writing a line of code. They make it feasible for non-developers to bring complex, interactive platforms to life, shaving off both time and cost.

What is the future of web apps?
What is the future of web apps?

Progressive Web Apps, accessibility, and chatbots are some of the major trends shaping the future. PWAs offer high performance and platform independence. Digital accessibility ensures that platforms are user-friendly for people with disabilities, avoiding potential legal problems. Chatbots provide immediate user engagement, streamlining customer service operations. Also, expect to see more ephemeral content, like Stories on Instagram, incorporated to keep users hooked.

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