Websites and apps have been an integral part of all our daily lives for many years now. In fact we’re so used to them we often don’t bother to question whether there are differences between the two. However, many nonprofits are now finding themselves wondering which option would be better for their organisation.

There are some distinct differences between websites and web applications: 

Websites

Websites are typically informational in nature. Think about the website of your favourite restaurant. Its primary purpose is to convey information to the end user. It probably just has basic details such as opening hours, directions, contact information and a menu. There’s little or no interaction on the part of the visitor, other than possibly submitting an email address to receive a monthly newsletter.

Web applications 

A web application (now universally known as an “app”) offers a  richer user experience than a  standard website. A website is primarily for consumption, whether that is of information or products, an app allows you to do something with it.

Think about that restaurant again – if their website offers more user interactivity, such as a Google Maps widget so you can get directions straight from your home, or the ability to reserve a table or order your food online, this would be classed as an app.

Technical differences

There are also a number of technical differences between a website and an app. Some defining attributes of an app are:

  • It is self-contained.
  • It offers an interactive user interface which has often been inspired by the operating system of the device the app has been designed for, so users will find it as easy as possible.
  • Many apps use the technical capabilities of the device they have been designed for, such as being able to access the camera or sense the user’s location.

In addition, a website must always be viewed through a web browser, even on mobile devices, such as Safari on iOS or Chrome on Android. An app does not require a browser, instead it has to be downloaded and installed directly onto the device. This also allows it to work offline, something a website can’t do.

Apps are also often open source projects, meaning anyone can add to the code at any time to make improvements to the app’s functionality. They are often developed using PHP web frameworks specifically designed for the development and maintenance of web apps; Laravel is a popular PHP web framework which is available for free. Developers can download the framework and then add to an app’s code.

Some examples

An example of a website would be the Australian Government website. This site has an extensive number of web pages, providing information on just about every issue you can think of to do with living in Australia, from schools to jobs, tax, to acquiring a visa or driving licence. 

However, it isn’t designed for you to do anything with it, other than gain information from it. It’s a hugely handy resource, but it can’t access your camera or offer you a Google map to direct you anywhere. Therefore it would be classed as a website.

A good example of an app, on the other hand, would be Facebook. This is specifically designed to be as interactive as possible. It can access your camera so you can take a photo or video and upload it straight to the site; you can even stream live video. It allows you to upload information from other websites, such as links to news articles or videos. It also, based on the information you have provided and the people you are already friends with on the site, suggests people that you might know but have not already added. 

The news feed is constantly updated in real time, and most people now download the app straight to a mobile device rather than accessing it via a browser. It is undoubtedly an app… or is it?

When does a website become an app?

Many businesses and organisations now offer a traditional website and an app, which can often be downloaded from the website and provides a mobile version of the information on the website, as well as more interactive features such as Google maps or geographically relevant offers.

There are also sites that are complete crossovers between the two. A good example of this would be Wikipedia. This is a site designed purely for the provision of information; it is a huge online encyclopaedia with a web page for almost anything you can think of. However, Wikipedia is also an open source project. Anyone can add to Wikipedia at any time, either creating a new entry for something that is not already listed, or adding to or correcting the information already provided. This makes it a highly interactive site. As it can also be downloaded straight to a device without the need for a browser, it is possible to make a strong argument that Wikipedia is in fact an app.

The crossover between websites and web apps is causing a great deal of confusion for organisations, as many are now left wondering which is the most appropriate option for them, or whether they should be providing their supporters with both options. 

However, as mobile optimisation increases, and websites become more and more interactive, it is likely that the factors separating the two will continue to shrink. Ultimately, it is the results they produce, rather than the definition, that matters.