Website Applications – Forms, Widgets & Web 2.0

A web application most often refers to computer software that runs in a browser (e.g. a Java applet) or a script that is coded in a browser-supported language (such as JavaScript, combined with a browser-rendered markup language like HTML) and such applications are reliant on a web browser (Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari, Firefox) to make them work.

Google Docs is a notable example of free website applications offering simple office software (word processing editing, online spreadsheets, and presentation tools), but there are more advanced applications such as project management, computer-aided design and image, audio and video editing applications, both free versions and paid.

More commonly used web applications include webmail, online retail sales, online auctions, wikis and any other interactive webpage element that rolled us over from WEB 1.0 to WEB 2.0 . The CMS WordPress uses various applications (editor, MySQL database, PHP scripting) and as a (we)Blog is an application in itself.

Working In A Browser Based Environment

Working In the Browser with Web ApplicationsThe convenience of using a web browser to update and maintain web applications without distributing and installing software on potentially thousands of client computers is a key reason for the popularity of web applications. Another is that many applications are free and cross-platform (PC and Mac). They also require little more thought than paying enough attention to click Next to install and update them.

While earlier computing models meant an upgrade to software would require an upgrade to the client installed version of downloadable software on each users computer – currently, in contrast, web applications do updates through the browser.  They use code to run tests on your operating system and adapts their code to tailor upgrades to it.

With web applications on web pages, during a session, your web browser interprets and displays pages, and acts as the universal client for the web application. Generally, each individual web page is delivered to the client as a static document, but the sequence of pages and execution of queries and commands can provide an interactive experience. Depending on what you fill in a form for example, via conditional statements embedded in the web page markup, different content is returned to different people due to their choices.

The static web page is almost as obsolete as the typewriter. Many people may not be aware of all the things they could do on some web pages, but those who do know, can be outraged if they cannot do it on your website!

It’s difficult to believe that nearly all web applications are still less than 20 years old!

The CERN datacenter with World Wide Web and Ma...

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In 1995, Netscape introduced a client-side scripting language called JavaScript, which allowed programmers to add some dynamic elements to the user interface that ran on the client side.

Until then, all the data had to be sent to the server for processing, and the results were delivered through static HTML pages sent back to the client

In 1996, Macromedia introduced Flash, a vector animation player that could be added to browsers as a plug-in to embed animations on the web pages. It allowed the use of a scripting language to program interactions on the client side with no need to communicate with the server.

In 1999, the “web application” concept was introduced in the Java language in the Servlet Specification version 2.1.  At that time both JavaScript and XML had already been developed, but Ajax had still not yet been coined and the XMLHttpRequest object had only been recently introduced on Internet Explorer 5 as an ActiveX object.

Through Java, JavaScript, DHTML, Flash, Silverlight and other technologies, application-specific methods such as drawing on the screen, playing audio, and access to the keyboard and mouse became possible.

In 2005, Ajax, a web development technique using a combination of various technologies, enabled applications like Gmail to start to make their client options more and more interactive.  Ajax is still a developing example of technology which creates a smoother faster interactive experience. Web developers often use this client-side scripting to add functionality, especially to create an interactive experience that does not require page reloading.

General purpose techniques such as drag and drop are also supported by these technologies. Recently, technologies have been developed to coordinate client-side scripting with server-side technologies such as PHP which WordPress uses. Whereas javascript and flash are difficult for search engines to interpret, PHP acts as a frame for different modules, some of which can integrate addons with meta data that can help explain dynamic content.

Smaller Apps – Widgets

Widgets often take the form of on-screen tools (clocks, event countdowns, auction-tickers, stock market tickers, flight arrival information, daily weather etc.). A widget is a stand-alone web application that can be embedded into people’s websites – by any user. on a page (or in the sidebar widget area of WordPress) where they have rights of authorship.

Widgets can be created that allow users to turn personal content into dynamic web apps that can be shared on other people’s websites where the code can be installed. For example, a “Weather Report Widget” could report today’s weather by accessing data from the Weather Channel, it could even be sponsored by the Weather Channel. Should you want to put that widget on your own web page, you could do this by copying and pasting the embed code into it.

Widgets are basically downloadable web applications which often depend on  web APIs. A company which follows this strategy is known as an application service provider (ASP), and ASPs are currently receiving much attention in the software industry.

The step from creating a website to developing an application for it gets smaller everyday. Many social sites are now requiring apps to be made to network with their sites. It is a relatively simple process, to sign up as a developer and follow a tutorial, but your first app will require a leap of faith to give it a try. Just do it – what can I say!

When we start we look for things to fill our sidebars see Bling For the Blog. Later on we look for specific things that can aid our readers or add value to their experience or to our traffic. When the sidebar gets too heavy, clean it out. You can just as easily embed content in a post as in the sidebar and this may be preferable sometimes. See Embedly.

What Does This Mean For Website Owners?

If you’ve reached the twentieth step of this 29 step series and not understood yet that static html websites are old school, try to grasp the new school concept of “dynamic ” now, with this explanation, because we all need to learn it and realize its importance.

Just as we had to learn the basics of desktop publishing when we got our first computer and started to use a word processor – now we need to grasp that many website readers may prefer to fill in a form than pick up a phone. We need to see that browsing is a passive activity and we must ask for an action if we want one, and enable this action to be as smooth and painless for the reader as possible.

People are beginning to expect dynamic content like Google Maps where it is relevant, and that such maps will be interactive to provide directions and satellite views just like Google does. Luckily using WordPress means that website owners can include such content via plugins relatively painlessly!

Future Progress …

The other thing is that there are great applications available to us now that make so many things easier.  Example? A small business could use a web application to manage their invoicing process. They join a website like Fresh Books and start by uploading a logo.

The browser based program resizes this graphic to fit into all its templates, so that documents can be printed or emailed both branded and professionally laid out. The online database holds an address book with contacts, transactions, outstanding accounts, communication records, and all this is accessible from any computer via a username and password combo. Further this website has a web application that integrates certain things with other web applications – such as WordPress, so that you can use this without anyone else being the wiser!

Due to the complexity of some of these web applications most are paid for on a subscription basis. You may pay yearly or monthly as a member, or you may be lucky enough to get a lifetime purchase. Don’t jump for joy yet though , as the lifetime of these web applications can be very short – witness Roboform 6’s debacle due to Firefox 4 .

You didn’t think lifetime referred to your lifetime did you 🙂 !

Anyway, this is just so as you are aware that web applications will be a major part of the content on most websites in the future. They will have interactive forms, Ajax that opens hidden content without turning a page, and external websites communicating with yours by synchronizing comments on both sites, sharing logins and who knows what else, in the way that current Facebook and Twitter applications allow.

Many of the plugins you use will have some of these elements. So I hope this article helped to explain the terminology you will encounter when you assess them.


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