By any other name

I’m not a fan of false dichotomies. Chief among them on the web is the dichotomy between documents and applications, or more broadly, “websites vs. web apps”:

Remember when we were all publishing documents on the web, but then there was that all-changing event and then we all started making web apps instead? No? Me neither. In fact, I have yet to hear a definition of what exactly constitutes a web app.

I’ve heard plenty of descriptions of web apps; there are many, many facets that could be used to describe a web app …but no hard’n’fast definitions.

One pithy observation is that “a website has an RSS feed; a web app has an API.” I like that. It’s cute. But it’s also entirely inaccurate. And it doesn’t actually help nail down what a web app actually is.

Like obscenity and brunch, web apps can be described but not defined.

I think that Jake gets close by describing sites as either “get stuff” (look stuff up) or “do stuff”. But even that distinction isn’t clear. Many sites morph from one into the other. Is Wikipedia a website up until the point that I start editing an article? Are Twitter and Pinterest websites while I’m browsing through them but then flip into being web apps the moment that I post something?

I think there’s a much more fundamental question here than simply “what’s the difference between a website and a web app?” That more fundamental question is…

Why?

Why do you want to make that distinction? What benefit do you gain by arbitrarily dividing the entire web into two classes?

I think this same fundamental question applies to the usage of the term “HTML5”. That term almost never means the fifth iteration of HTML. Instead it’s used to describe everything from CSS to WebGL. It fails as a descriptive term for the same reason that “web app” does: it fails to communicate the meaning intended by the person using the term. You might say “HTML5” and mean “requires JavaScript to work”, but I might hear “HTML5” and think you mean “has a short doctype.” I think the technical term for a word like this is “buzzword”: a word that is commonly used but without any shared understanding or agreement.

In the case of “web app”, I’m genuinely curious to find out why so many designers, developers, and product owners are so keen to use the label. Perhaps it’s simply fashion. Perhaps “website” just sounds old-fashioned, and “web app” lends your product a more up-to-date, zingy feeling on par with the native apps available from the carefully-curated walled gardens of app stores.

In his recent talk at Port 80, Jack Franklin points to one of the dangers of the web app/site artificial split:

We’re all building sites that people visit, do something, and leave. Differentiating websites vs. web apps is no good to anyone. A lot of people ignore new JavaScript tools, methods or approaches because those are just for “web apps.”

That’s a good point. A lot of tools, frameworks, and libraries pitch themselves as being intended for web apps even though they might be equally useful for good ol’-fashioned websites.

In my experience, there’s an all-too-common reason why designers, developers, and product owners are eager to self-identify as the builders of web apps. It gives them a “get out of jail free” card. All the best practices that they’d apply to websites get thrown by the wayside. Progressive enhancement? Accessibility? Semantic markup? “Oh, we’d love to that, but this is a web app, you see… that just doesn’t apply to us.”

I’m getting pretty fed up with it. I find myself grinding my teeth when I hear the term “web app” used without qualification.

We need a more inclusive term that covers both sites and apps on the web. I propose we use the word “thang.”

“Check out this web thang I’m working on.”

“Have you seen this great web thang?”

“What’s that?” “It’s a web thang.”

Now all I need is for someone to make a browser plugin (along the lines of the cloud-to-moon and cloud-to-butt plugins) to convert every instance of “website” or “web app” to “web thang.”