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Applications vs. Webapps

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Some background:  currently working on an application at work, and it is a Java application.  We're adding a bunch of stuff that just doesn't fit into the GUI very well.  Creating reports, sending them to the server to run, displaying currently submitted reports, viewing the results, that kind of stuff.  I spent all last week just trying to figure out how to get everything into the tab on the GUI.  So far I have been unsuccessful.

 

I think all these things, because they live on the server, should be in a webpage and not the application.  My boss doesn't think so.  Because there is no editor for creating the report on the web (and it would be too costly) then the report stuff should live with the app.

 

OK.  My questions:

 

What is the difference between a webapp and an applications?  I couldn't express my views very well, but I know that the web is better suited for some tasks than a web page.  He argued that you can stick anything in an app that you can on a webpage, and it's easier, plus you don't need a server.

 

I can't put my finger on why this wrong, but having done both webapps and applications, I know this isn't true.

 

Anyone have a better way of expressing this so he'll understand?  Or maybe I'm crazy, and he's right.  Tell me why.

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On a side note, he uses a Mac for everything.  It occurred to me that mac apps are more like web pages than Java programs.  For example, the App store on my mac has links at the top, and forward/back buttons, and an unlimited vertical canvas to display everything. 

 

Is there some kind of GUI toolkit for this stuff I missed?

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When I think of a "webapp", what comes to mind is some sort of RESTful web service.  At my last job that's exactly how we generated all of our report-type stuff, via REST endpoints.  In that particular domain space, he'd be right -- you can totally just represent an app interface with a web page.

 

Outside of that, I'm less sure what you're getting at.

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Outside of that, I'm less sure what you're getting at.

 

I'm not concerned with the technology.  It is more of a philosophical answer I'm looking for.  Something like:

 

All things being equal, a solution that will [insert requirements] is better as an application, a solution that will [insert requirements] is better suited as a bunch of web pages, and a solutions that will [insert requirements] doesn't really favor one or the other.

 

I feel like the current requirements would be better suited for a web app, but it is just a feeling.  I don't have a good argument.

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A webapp is just an application that runs in the browser using web technology like html, javascript, xhr, etc.

 

Pros:

- user does not need to install the software

- user does not need to update the software

- cross platform

- sandboxed (browser separates app and os)

- rich design language (css)

 

Cons:

- requires internet access at all times (except if you do advanced stuff like html5 application cache)

- javascript

- can be slower than a native app

- browser differences can make development difficult

- sandboxed (if the app needs access to "unsafe" os functions you're SOL)

Edited by Madhed

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Pros:
- requires internet access at all times (except if you do advanced stuff like html5 application cache)


Sounds like a con to me.
 

Cons:
- javascript


It is extremely debatable whether that's a pro, a con, or just irrelevant. Especially given that a great many web apps _aren't_ written with JavaScript these days but rather CoffeeScript or TypeScript or ES6 (Traceur) or Java (GWT) or some other transpiler; you can even use C++ if you really want thanks to projects like Emscripten.

--

Ultimately, web apps are just apps that use the browser as their platform instead of Qt or Java or whatever "native" platform you'd choose otherwise. From a technical standpoint, it's all about the features of the platform you want.

Modern browsers are extremely rich and capable of doing many of the things a native app can do at near-equivalent speeds. If you don't already have a concrete technical reason why a native app is better, the overwhelming odds are that the web app approach will save you time and money in the long run, as the Web is cheaper and easier to develop for than almost any native app framework (save maybe the HTML5 app frameworks).

From business' perspective, the lack of a need to install is the killer feature of Web apps. Metrics show that only a small fraction of the people who come to your website will bother to download any app, and then only a small fraction of the people who download it run an installer (on mobile devices downloading == installing, but not on the PC), and then only a small fraction of the people who install it actually run it. I've seen metrics for a few different sorts of apps showing these same trends.

Flash games took off so well in the early days of the F2P Web Game market precisely because there were zero barriers between a user showing interest in the product and being inside the app. HTML5 apps are the modern incarnation of that. (1) User clicks link, (2) user is in app, (3) ???, (4) profit.

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Yep that actually belongs in the con list. Dont know how it ended up there.
As for transpilers. Didn't really think of that. Good point.
Im not against pure JavaScript either. Just thought that might be a negative for people who are used to other languages.

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Modern browsers are extremely rich and capable of doing many of the things a native app can do at near-equivalent speeds. If you don't already have a concrete technical reason why a native app is better, the overwhelming odds are that the web app approach will save you time and money in the long run, as the Web is cheaper and easier to develop for than almost any native app framework (save maybe the HTML5 app frameworks).

 

The caveat here however is that "Modern Browsers" aren't an automatic when dealing with users, whether in the corporate or consumer space.

 

That said, I'm going to assume this is an in-house product, since most apps with that description tend to be.  In which case, it's fine, since you typically don't need to develop for the nasty cases (i.e. IE, pardon the pun).

 

HTML/CSS are fantastic for lightweight UI needs.  Full-featured client GUI toolkits tend to bring a lot of baggage with them because of their complexity.  Do you need half a dozen checkboxes, tabs, and other fancy widgets (in which case HTML 5 is often still perfectly suited), or do just need maybe a file upload box and a table with some download links?

Edited by SeraphLance

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Biggest advantage for native apps is higher speed, read this for instance:

https://www.facebook.com/notes/facebook-engineering/under-the-hood-rebuilding-facebook-for-ios/10151036091753920

In addition, not all native (advanced) features are availible to webapps.

 

Another reason for choosing native apps is that it will get some free promotion from the Google Play/App store. If you build an webapp youll need to do your own advertising. The advertising itself will be easier for a webapp however and with the large amount of applications in the app stores your native app will most likely get only a slight attention the first day when it appears in the 'new apps' category.

 

There are pros and cons for each, ultimately you might just want to write 3/4 apps: webapp, android and ios (and perhaps windows)

This depends on the succes of your app.

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I'd go for a web page if there is some framework/application/service that is designed to do what you want to do. Say, Oracle's APEX is made for that sort of "business" stuff, reports, client lists, inventory lists, etc. So if you know your way around it, you might get something working real fast (disclaimer: I hate it and I think its awful, but its a good example).

 

That said, if the application required isn't something that could be catered from a known framework/application, and requires quite a bit of custom functionality, I'd go for a desktop app. I'd prefer it in Java + JavaFX/Swing so you can get OSX/Linux compatibility without much further thought and using standard GUI toolkits. If you target only Windows, .NET with WPF is probably a better choice.

 

For server connections, report generators and "enterprise frameworks", both Java and C# got plenty of options for whatever database/environment you're working afaik.

 

If you need also mobile compatibility, you could roll a desktop Java application restricting yourself to whatever Dalvik supports only so make Android deployment possible, or just use one of the several frameworks out there that support exporting to Adroind/iOS/etc.

 

With web sites this aspect isn't as tough since pretty much any web site framework out there is kinda prepared to provide you the tools to have a mobile version of the website working if the mobile device doesn't supports the full site as it is already.

 

I wouldn't do any "heavy" app in a web site. There could be plenty of time/work lost if the work being done through the app needs lots of interaction and/or the internet connection in the place isn't good enough.

Edited by TheChubu

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I spent all last week just trying to figure out how to get everything into the tab on the GUI.  So far I have been unsuccessful.

 

It sounds like you are having interface design problems.

 

There are many different design patterns for interfaces. Your statement, "I spent all last week just trying to figure out how to get everything into the tab on the GUI.", sounds like you might be trying to apply the wrong pattern to your application's interface. Did you know there's an entire sub-site of StackExchange dedicated just to these kind of issues?

 

Perhaps if you gave some more details and screenshots or, if the screenshots would violate your company secrecy, GUI mockups of your current application interface, we might be able to find a desktop-based solution that you and your boss are pleased with.

 

Websites don't have any gui design features that regular apps don't have. Web interfaces lean towards different patterns than the average desktop app, but those same patterns are fully available to desktop applications as well when they need them (especially when you remember that your web browser itself is a desktop application).

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This is an interesting topic to me and brings to mind an idea of mine which... will never be implemented because the industry is going in a completely opposite direction (honestly it could be a terrible idea that I haven't thought through enough anyway).  I probably won't have space to add that here. Nevermind, off topic.
 

To give my take on an answer to the OP - as usual it's heavily dependent on requirements (damn those things!).  IMO you (in the general sense) need to examine the topic from both an "Internet" perspective and an "enterprise/business" perspective.  I could probably write a small book on the subject (sad, really) and I was starting to respond with what looked like a first chapter before I came to my senses.  Many people seem to focus only on the Internet side (which is more visible than internal business intranet stuff) and so I think many managers and developers end up following the Internet's lead, but a business intranet has some important differences. What works best for the Internet may not be the best solution for a private intranet.

 

What do you mean by "they live on the server"?  By thinking that way, you could argue for changing almost anything that touches a database into a webapp.  I'm unclear regarding what advantages you perceive would be gained from a conversion to a web application.  But in my opinion webapps are definitely more complicated and usually more work intensive (usually still Java based anyway, in a business setting).  In a business environment, I can't justify using them for a tiny user base (if that's the case).

 

 

Since the main pro (no installs/updates) is well known, I'll throw out some of the cons for a small web-based data-centric/business intranet reporting application with a small user base (alter part of that and this list can change dramatically) which your manager may be thinking of.  Also, I'm having a hard time thinking of other pros with the information you provided.

 

-Additional development complexity. More scaffolding, more libraries/frameworks, dependencies, tools, concurrency considerations, sessions, knowledge and so on are required...you probably know this, but I don't take this one lightly.  Complexity level vs. a Java thick client isn't even close, IMO.

-More complicated server side to deal with. Depending on environment complexity and factors like whether you have a pack of security goons nagging you, this can get bad.

-Harder (and often slower) to debug web-based stuff

-Net connection required, no "disconnected mode" (this may be a moot point with a reporting application if there's a remote database involved)

-Loss of easy access to useful local functionality such as the operating system clipboard, disk storage (without having to bother with cookies and such), screen captures, etc.

-DHTML still sucks. CSS & DOM are the 800lb gorillas in the room and they're still not pretty. The more browsers you're coding for, the worse it gets. But this may not matter in your environment if you're standardized to one browser.  Dev frameworks make this easier but they still need to be updated to keep up with the browser mess.

-Not sure what tools you have available, but relatively speaking, web dev front end tools generally aren't much fun to use - assuming your tech of choice even has one.

 

On the other hand, a Java (Swing I assume) application for a small number of users to do some reporting - I can think of some nice advantages here.  Swing isn't perfect but it can get much worse.  If you're having layout manager problems I'd suggest dumping that crap, use a null (absolute) layout and a decent UI builder tool for a complex UI.  You don't need to worry about resizing stuff for 50 different sized screens, do you?  (Even then you could use null layouts in smaller parts.)

 

To give a better analysis of "who has the better argument" we'd have to have more requirements, such as the size of the user base, size of the application, what type of reports it's generating (graphics, tabular, etc), amount of data being processed & displayed, how many controls need to fit onto a screen, what technology/tool options are available etc.  

It sounds like your manager might have some dev experience, which could mean that he knows what he's talking about... or he has some bias.

Edited by Tebriel

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It sounds like you are having interface design problems.

 

It does, and if so I'd bet that a layout manager is giving him fits.

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You have to consider the all the requirements --

 

If the program needs a connection to the network to do anything useful (e.g. it queries a database or reads/writes other network resources) then you need to have network connectivity one way or the other. On the other hand, if you can do useful stuff without a network connection, then a program that can be deployed on a workstation won't be brought down by a network outage.

 

How much processing power does the application need? Are you better off spreading that out among each user's workstations, or do you have a big enough on-premises server to handle the number of concurrent users you expect? All possible users? 3x that, if the company grows? Does the application scale up, or does it scale out?

 

What are the things you could do if the app lived on a server that would be difficult to do in an app? Collaboration? Continuous analytics? real-time analytics?

 

Modern web applications can be very, very robust and capable. Google has google docs, Microsoft has a very feature-rich IDE in beta. The web has come a long, long way since forms and post-backs. There's effectively nothing you can't do in a browser today, as long as you're happy playing in the sandbox that browsers give you.

 

The general benefits of running an app on a server are that you have control of the environment to a greater degree, and you don't have the (potential) headache of deploying and maintaining the app across a large number of workstations. This can have fringe benefits like being able to roll out new features and bug-fixes rapidly and incrementally (obviously, well-tested first), something that's too costly to consider when 10s or hundreds of workstations need to be kept in sync.

 

You may have to tow the party line, but it sounds as if your boss is very old-guard, and might be concerned that a changing world will leave him out of a job. He might not be up on the state of web development, or perhaps he is, but knows he doesn't have the expertise on staff to make the transition in a cost-effective way, or quickly enough to meet milestones. There are countless good or bad reasons to not do something, even if that something really is a great solution. 

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-Additional development complexity. More scaffolding, more libraries/frameworks, dependencies, tools, concurrency considerations, sessions, knowledge and so on are required...you probably know this, but I don't take this one lightly.  Complexity level vs. a Java thick client isn't even close, IMO.
-More complicated server side to deal with. Depending on environment complexity and factors like whether you have a pack of security goons nagging you, this can get bad.
-Harder (and often slower) to debug web-based stuff
-Net connection required, no "disconnected mode" (this may be a moot point with a reporting application if there's a remote database involved)
-Loss of easy access to useful local functionality such as the operating system clipboard, disk storage (without having to bother with cookies and such), screen captures, etc.
-DHTML still sucks. CSS & DOM are the 800lb gorillas in the room and they're still not pretty. The more browsers you're coding for, the worse it gets. But this may not matter in your environment if you're standardized to one browser.  Dev frameworks make this easier but they still need to be updated to keep up with the browser mess.
-Not sure what tools you have available, but relatively speaking, web dev front end tools generally aren't much fun to use - assuming your tech of choice even has one.

 

To be fair though, most of those that seem most hairy are not inherent problems in the platform, but a question of having people with the right know-how. From a business perspective, absolutely what resources and skills you have to carry out an implementation matters -- it probably matters more than just about any other factor -- but lets not be confused that they are insurmountable. I don't think you meant to imply as such, but what you said might read that way to someone less versed in these matters.

 

Also, if this is an app meant to run within an enterprise, then many of the real (but likewise not insurmountable) issues with browser-compatibility or feature-set melt away. Many people will decry web-apps as a total no-go due to the problems that arise from the variety of browsers you would have to support to deliver on the promise of "runs anywhere" -- To that I say, loudly, "So What?" -- Pick a browser, any browser, that supports the features you need and declare it as your supported browser. On a corporate network, the powers that be absolutely can make it so. Even in the Internet Frontier, 300 million people have a modern chrome browser installed, that's a pretty damn good install base by any measure.

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It does, and if so I'd bet that a layout manager is giving him fits.

 

No, it's not a layout thing.  I've been using Miglayout for years.  It isn't a question of knowing how to layout the GUI, from a technical standpoint.  I've made dozens of Java GUIs over the years.  

 

usabilitysimplicitycomic.png

 

It's that the application is looking like that.  Which I don't like.

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It's that the application is looking like that.  Which I don't like.

This is what UX (that is "user experience", for the uninitiated) designers are paid the big bucks for.

 

(well, maybe not so big. But paid, at least)

 

Since I have to assume that you don't have any UX resources assigned to this project, you probably need to learn to think like one. Build a list of the features you are adding. For each feature, whiteboard/flowchart the steps the user should go through to complete the task. Factor out common sub-tasks if there is significant overlap between the steps required to use a set of features. Implement each distinct feature as a single continuous flow (don't try and cram all features into a single screen, don't provide options on a given screen which are irrelevant to the current task). Read a copy of the design of everyday things. Profit.

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It's that the application is looking like that.  Which I don't like.

This is what UX (that is "user experience", for the uninitiated) designers are paid the big bucks for.

 

(well, maybe not so big. But paid, at least)

 

Since I have to assume that you don't have any UX resources assigned to this project, you probably need to learn to think like one. Build a list of the features you are adding. For each feature, whiteboard/flowchart the steps the user should go through to complete the task. Factor out common sub-tasks if there is significant overlap between the steps required to use a set of features. Implement each distinct feature as a single continuous flow (don't try and cram all features into a single screen, don't provide options on a given screen which are irrelevant to the current task). Read a copy of the design of everyday things. Profit.

 

 

Yes, this sounds like what is happening.  I've never heard of this book, but I cant wait to check it out.  

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It does, and if so I'd bet that a layout manager is giving him fits.

 

No, it's not a layout thing.  I've been using Miglayout for years.  It isn't a question of knowing how to layout the GUI, from a technical standpoint.  I've made dozens of Java GUIs over the years.  

 

It's that the application is looking like that.  Which I don't like.

 

 

Hey, you stole our application design theme...  so yeah, you're definitely having design troubles, not tech with that level of experience.

But seriously, I don't know if your users fall into this category or not, but ours actually ask for this type of interface more often than not.  I just re-designed an application specifically to consolidate screens (although, I must say it's quite a bit prettier than the comic example).  I've been in your exact situation - sometimes we're asked to pack so much into a small space (oh, and it has to look nice too) that it takes days just to come up with an initial prototype, which gets revised 5 times.  I find that visual breaks and logical groupings help quite a bit (i.e. TitledBorder and so on I believe it's called in Swing).

But if the users are happy, I tend to just go with that unless I think they're sabotaging themselves.  IMO the difference with these data heavy apps and a Google/Apple app is that one is designed for maximum productivity/speed, and the other is designed for ease of use and attractiveness.  Two very different sets of requirements!  I doubt an Apple or Google can completely solve such a problem, and if they did, I'd bet that productivity is taking a big hit.  Maybe I'm just ignorant but I'd say most of the time there's a reason all these apps look busy.

If you really just want to switch tech, you could try a rich client SDK on your manager like Apache Flex or JavaFX to see how he reacts to that.  But I imagine it'd be hard to justify replacing something that already is working.  Choose your sales pitch wisely... lol

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To be fair though, most of those that seem most hairy are not inherent problems in the platform, but a question of having people with the right know-how.

 

Oh, I don't disagree that knowledge solves many of the problems.  But with the fast pace of change on this front (no end in sight) and the fragmentation of front-end browser SDKs, once you become an expert... it's time to upgrade or change SDKs, time to get a new job (same thing), someone you're working with gets replaced, some new browser or platform comes along, etc.  Learning curve and ease of use are important to me in a rapidly evolving and demanding environment, and most people over the age of 30 can't be bothered to spend all the time needed to stay an expert (hard to blame them).

 

Like I said, a standard browser helps quite a bit, but I can't help but think back to browser upgrades which have broken key components of web apps.  Which (if it's your own product) may then require you to update your front end SDK... oh, and did you see the readme about how they recommend a new version of Eclipse and require a JDK update?  And then we'll have to fix any new issues, re-test...  oh is that a classloader conflict? *kills self* (I realize this is a contrived example, but these things do happen and the unplanned O&M surprises are not fun.)

 

I was focusing (above) on the negative issues since they seem rarely discussed.  Or maybe I'm just a grinch.

 

But I agree that the issues are in no way insurmountable.  They're solved all the time.  A big issue I have is that they're solved all the time.  Over and over again.  :)  Then again, maybe this is what keeps us all employed, so I should just shut up now...

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As well as Webapps and Applications there are also Hybrid Apps such as iTunes or the Mac app store and many mobile apps.

 


- sandboxed (browser separates app and os)

 

Its still possible to access the users file system and allow the user to open files or save files.

 


- javascript

 

Most of the development of a web app can be done using a language such as Ruby, Python, PHP, SCala, Java etc.  Javascript is only neccessary for the most basic glue that holds the web page together such as Ajax calls.  Although Javascript is going through a renaisance at the moment so does seem to be the most popular.  Even then it is possible to do all your Javascript without actually coding in Javascript.  You can use Coffescript, Go, Clojure even C++ with emscription.

 

 


- can be slower than a native app

 

It can also be faster.

 

 


- requires internet access at all times (except if you do advanced stuff like html5 application cache)

 

Not always neccessary and also not really a con because if you do not require internet access you may as well write a non webapp.

 

 


- browser differences can make development difficult

 

Now this is the real downfall of webapps.  And thanks to arguments between all the browser manufacturers one that will probably never go away.  On the otherhand developing for different browsers is not as bad as for developing for different OSs naitively.

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- browser differences can make development difficult

 
Now this is the real downfall of webapps.  And thanks to arguments between all the browser manufacturers one that will probably never go away.  On the otherhand developing for different browsers is not as bad as for developing for different OSs naitively.

It's also kind of overstated these days. Yes, browser compatibility was hell in the early 2000's, but IE 6 is fading, and libraries like jQuery have done a bang-up job of abstracting over the differences.

There is still a lag in the adoption of new tech (for example, WebGL), but that's only to be expected in a fragmented market (and no better in native, for the most part).

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So thinking about the design of stuff (and I've ordered this: http://amzn.com/B00E257T6C) I think that deciding that it would be better in the web instead of an application was where I went wrong.  If the UX was designed correctly, then it would let the user perform the task.  It shouldn't matter if the app is a webpage, Java application, Android app, iPad/iPhone, whatever.

 

The fact that implementing the solution may be quicker/easier with a Java app or a webpage or a web 2.0 javascript doesn't really matter.

Edited by Glass_Knife

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So thinking about the design of stuff (and I've ordered this: http://amzn.com/B00E257T6C) I think that deciding that it would be better in the web instead of an application was where I went wrong.  If the UX was designed correctly, then it would let the user perform the task.  It shouldn't matter if the app is a webpage, Java application, Android app, iPad/iPhone, whatever.

 

The fact that implementing the solution may be quicker/easier with a Java app or a webpage or a web 2.0 javascript doesn't really matter.

Haven't read it myself, but have heard good things about Don't make me think from people who know about such things.

 

One key thing to remember is that you can't not have a user experience; you can only have a good UX or a bad UX.

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