Web Service vs Web Application

There are times when I get confused if a web application is sufficient to solve a problem or I should be creating a web service. So I tried to get into depth of the two approaches.

What is a web application? web + application. A software application is something that is helping a user to achieve some specific goal, like MS Word, Calculator, Email Client etc. A web application, similarly, is an application which is available over a network or internet, it might be online banking application, some e-commerce application etc.

What is a web service? A service is similar to application in a sense that it is achieving a goal, but instead of being independent application, a service is providing inputs to some other application. For example, a service to add up two numbers, will take 2 numbers from a calculator app, add up two numbers, and return back to the calling applications.

Now how to take up the question if I should be creating a web application for a particular problem or web service. Let’s go back to calculator app, which needs a functionality to add 2 numbers. Web application approach will be to implement the add function inside the app, which is good enough if I know that this function is to be used only with this app. Web service approach will need the sum service to be independent of any application. This gives advantage that the same service can be used by multiple applications, this includes web apps, mobile apps or desktop apps as they will just need to connect to network and call the service to fulfill a requirement.

Above, we have defined web app and web service from a functional aspect. Technically, web service is a specialized web application only. A rule of thumb states that if your requirements want a user interface, you will need a web application implementation, but if your requirement does not need a interface but will return only some data, a web service is a good fit.