A web application (or web app) is application software that runs on a web server, unlike computer-based software programs that are stored locally on the Operating System (OS) of the device. Web applications are accessed by the user through a web browser with an active internet connection. These applications are programmed using a client–server modeled structure—the user (“client”) is provided services through an off-site server that is hosted by a third-party. Examples of commonly-used web applications include: web-mail, online retail sales, online banking, and online auctions.

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 are all possible. Many services have worked to combine all of these into a more familiar interface that adopts the appearance of an operating system. General purpose techniques such as drag and drop are also supported by these technologies. Web developers often use client-side scripting to add functionality, especially to create an interactive experience that does not require page reloading. Recently, technologies have been developed to coordinate client-side scripting with server-side technologies such as ASP.NET, J2EE, Perl/Plack and PHP.

Ajax, a web development technique using a combination of various technologies, is an example of technology which creates a more interactive experience.

Applications are usually broken into logical chunks called “tiers”, where every tier is assigned a role. Traditional applications consist only of 1 tier, which resides on the client machine, but web applications lend themselves to an n-tiered approach by nature. Though many variations are possible, the most common structure is the three-tiered application. In its most common form, the three tiers are called presentation, application and storage, in this order. A web browser is the first tier (presentation), an engine using some dynamic Web content technology (such as ASP, CGI, ColdFusion, Dart, JSP/Java, Node.js, PHP, Python or Ruby on Rails) is the middle tier (application logic), and a database is the third tier (storage). The web browser sends requests to the middle tier, which services them by making queries and updates against the database and generates a user interface.

For more complex applications, a 3-tier solution may fall short, and it may be beneficial to use an n-tiered approach, where the greatest benefit is breaking the business logic, which resides on the application tier, into a more fine-grained model. Another benefit may be adding an integration tier that separates the data tier from the rest of tiers by providing an easy-to-use interface to access the data. For example, the client data would be accessed by calling a “list_clients()” function instead of making an SQL query directly against the client table on the database. This allows the underlying database to be replaced without making any change to the other tiers.

There are some who view a web application as a two-tier architecture. This can be a “smart” client that performs all the work and queries a “dumb” server, or a “dumb” client that relies on a “smart” server. The client would handle the presentation tier, the server would have the database (storage tier), and the business logic (application tier) would be on one of them or on both. While this increases the scalability of the applications and separates the display and the database, it still doesn’t allow for true specialization of layers, so most applications will outgrow this model.

Writing web applications is often simplified by the use of web application framework. These frameworks facilitate rapid application development by allowing a development team to focus on the parts of their application which are unique to their goals without having to resolve common development issues such as user management. Many of the frameworks in use are open-source software.

The use of web application frameworks can often reduce the number of errors in a program, both by making the code simpler, and by allowing one team to concentrate on the framework while another focuses on a specified use case. In applications which are exposed to constant hacking attempts on the Internet, security-related problems can be caused by errors in the program. Frameworks can also promote the use of best practices such as GET after POST.

In addition, there is potential for the development of applications on Internet operating systems, although currently there are not many viable platforms that fit this model.

Examples of browser applications are simple office software (word processors, online spreadsheets, and presentation tools), but can also include more advanced applications such as project management, computer-aided design, video editing, and point-of-sale.