What Exactly is a Web Application, Anyway?

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When I tell people my business is building and maintaining Web sites and Web applications and providing WordPress support services, I get interesting reactions.

Pretty much everyone knows what a Web site is.

Fellow WordPress developers/designers and WordPress Do-It-Yourselfers (people who build and manage their own WordPress Web sites) know what WordPress support means.

But many people don’t understand what I mean by “Web application“.

So allow me to explain.

Web Application Defined

When I refer to a Web application, I’m talking about a computer program – or a suite of programs – whose guts (the programming code and logic) reside on a Web server and whose functionality is accessed through a Web browser.

In the older days, back-office computer programs resided on and were accessed from individuals’ computers or from a company’s local area network. Many still do.

In many cases, the Web applications I build allow people to perform specialized back-office operations — those tasks that keep a company running and for which canned solutions are either non-existent or cost-prohibitive — via password-protected Web pages. Such Web applications are typically referred to as Intranets and Extranets. Other types of Web applications consist of public-facing functionality — advanced Web-site features accessible by visitors to the sites.

In many cases, these Web applications are seamlessly integrated into WordPress Web sites. And in every case (for those who care about such things), I build these applications in PHP and MySQL.

In the older days, back-office computer programs resided on and were accessed from individuals’ computers or from a company’s local area network. Many still do. In some cases, these back-office operations are handled by a single individual using office productivity software like Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access. (You might be surprised how many of these are still in use, even in organizations with sophisticated technology.)

Advantages of Web Applications over Computer- and LAN-based Applications

Computer- or LAN-based applications have drawbacks and limitations that Web applications don’t suffer from. Here are a few such limitations.

Data Sharing:

In the case of those all-too-common standalone Excel applications, sharing data is not a smooth process, nor is it real-time. Typically, the operator of the application distributes either a copy of the most recent spreadsheet by email, an export of the spreadsheet data by email, or printouts. Then, within hours or even minutes, the operator updates the data in the application, and the distributed files and printouts are obsolete. Other computer/LAN applications have the same drawbacks.

A properly built Web application grants appropriate privileges (e.g. Read, Update) to authorized users. Data changes take effect and are displayed instantaneously.

Updating (Bug Fixes and Enhancements):

When modifications (either bug fixes or enhancements) are needed, updating computer/LAN applications is often more complicated and time-consuming than updating Web applications. With computer/LAN applications, software might have to be installed on multiple computers. Users might be required to perform some of the update steps. A company might have multiple locations, each of which must be updated.

With Web applications, software fixes and enhancements are simply uploaded to the Web server. No matter how many different offices a company might have, and no matter where they are located, the centralized nature of a Web application makes the update simple and virtually instantaneous for all users. Because of this, Web applications support (even encourage) small, incremental updates. And that’s a good thing.

Platform/Hardware Compatibility:

Many computer/LAN applications are built around a specific operating system and hardware that meets specific requirements. Updating hardware and operating systems to support these applications present logistical challenges and can be costly, if not prohibitive, for some companies.

While it’s true that a Web application needs to reside on and be served from a Web server that meets specific requirements, we’re only talking about one computer here. As for the “client” hardware and software, a properly built Web application is device- and platform-agnostic: all anyone needs is an Internet connection and a modern Web browser.

Examples of Web Applications

Probably the best way to explain what I mean by Web application is to furnish a few examples from actual work I’ve done.

My Own CRM (Customer Relationship Management) System

Screen capture from my own custom CRM system Web application

Screen capture from my own custom CRM system

For years – decades, actually – I used a desktop computer program called GoldMine to manage my contact database, track billable work, and generate customer invoices. It was a robust program, and I was using only some (10-15%?) of its features. Also, there were many features I wanted that it did not provide. I frequently contemplated building my own system to replace it, but I believe “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Then it broke. A computer hiccup (more like stroke) corrupted the GoldMine database and rendered the program inoperable. I took a few days off from work and built a Web-based CRM system that I’m using (and continually incrementally enhancing) to this day.

Sales Follow-Up Letters


Counselor Letters application. Sceen for sending a letter.

A client whose Web site I built wanted his sales counselors to be able to automatically generate follow-up emails to visitors who submit inquiries through the site’s contact form. I built a secure Web application that allows appropriate personnel to upload sales brochures, create and modify email templates, and generate (and re-send, if necessary) personalized emails with links to those brochures. The system automatically tracks counselor responses and highlights unanswered inquiries. It also allows counselors to generate letters to prospects who contact the company using methods other than the contact form (i.e., telephone or direct email).

Custom Membership Site for National Organization

Custom Membership system, Add-Payment screen, Web application

Custom Membership system, Add-Payment screen

When a national organization with over 2,100 members sought to create a new, mobile-friendly Web presence that would consolidate its two separate legacy sites, they engaged a colleague of mine to build the new site in WordPress. Membership functionality requirements were especially complex, and my colleague engaged me to design, build, and seamlessly integrate a custom membership system. Now, after nearly two years since initial launch, I continue to work with the organization to add enhancements for further improving the quality of customer service to members and for further streamlining back-office operations.

Custom Vehicle Search for WordPress Web Site

Custom search form for WordPress Web site Web application

Custom search form for WordPress Web site

When she determined that no WordPress plugin could do the job, a fellow WordPress developer engaged me to build and integrate a custom auto-parts search program for a client who operates multiple auto parts yards. The project involved retrieving and converting remote CSV files and importing them into MySQL database tables; building human-friendly, fully validated online search forms using PHP, MySQL, AJAX, and jQuery; implementing cron jobs for automated processing; and seamlessly incorporating all of the above into Genesis custom templates.

Custom Online Ordering System for Manufacturer of Plantation Shutters

Filling in dimensions and specifications, Web application

Filling in dimensions and specifications

This is another case of a fellow WordPress developer engaging me to build a custom Web application for a client. The client manufactures plantation shutters which it sells to wholesalers and retailers who sell the shutters to homeowners. The client’s original order form was a downloadable, 130-field PDF that needed to be printed out and filled in by hand. The completed form was then faxed back to the manufacturer, who had to transfer all the data into a master Excel spreadsheet that automatically generates cut lists and calculates costs for each order. It should be no surprise that the potential for problems — namely, data that is either invalid or illegible or both — was great. The project involved creating a custom online form for order entry; programming scripts for validating submissions and transforming them into files to be imported into the client’s master Excel spreadsheet; and an administrative notification system and interface for downloading orders. As a second phase of the project, I built a customer portal through which the client’s customers can view, print, and clone saved orders. My client uses the portal to view, print, search, download, and update the status of orders.

Read more about this project

Who Needs Web Applications?

If you’re a business owner, a custom Web application for specialized back-office operations could streamline your workload, enhance the quality of your customer service, and ultimately improve your bottom line. There’s a good chance that some of the tasks you’re performing to keep your business running — whether you’re managing them with index cards, Excel, or some computer/LAN program — would work so much better as a Web application. Think about it, and please contact me if you want to explore the possibilities.

If you’re a fellow Web-site designer/developer, there’s a good chance our skill sets could complement each other to make the lives of your clients much easier — while making you even more of a hero in their eyes. Think about it, and please contact me if you want to explore the possibilities.

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About JeffCohan.com

The nSiteful Tech Blog (the official blog of nSiteful Web Builders, Inc. since January of 2013) is where I (Jeff Cohan) and (occasionally) associates will be posting articles of potential interest to like-minded techies, nSiteful clients who are playing active roles in the maintenance of their own Web sites and blogs, and pretty much anyone interested in how Web strategies and tools can help them reach their goals.

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About Jeff Cohan

Jeff and his wife, Margie, are the proud parents of Sarah and Jake. Jeff is the founder, president and chief cook and bottle washer of nSiteful Web Builders, Inc., a Web development and Internet Consulting firm. In his spare time, Jeff builds Web sites and Web applications, plays guitar, putters around in his basement woodworking shop, mercilessly spoils his grandchildren, and creates videos from more than two decades of home movies. His current video project is an extended montage of people (mainly family members) asking him to stop filming them.

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