Is an "app", by definition, something else?

With iPhone there were “apps”, which I understod as “(probably more or less sandboxed) applications for smart phones”, and never really had a problem with that. But then there was Windows tablets with its own apps (like “Notepad app”), which blurred the concept a little bit for me. And now I’m reading about the next big thing: Apps for Windows 8, that is, “apps for Microsoft’s desktop operating system”, if you will.

So now I’m asking, What is an app, really? Just another name for what was once known as an application, technically, or something else?

There’s no central authority that defines the word “app”. If I had to come up with a functional definition, I’d go with “anything you put on a tablet or smartphone”, “usually installed from some central app store”. But since it’s a trendy word and concept, MS has taken it as a marketing term. Now, once there are Windows apps, I’d define them as “small, single-purpose programs with relatively limited functionality”. I.e. I don’t think that the full versions of Photoshop or Office will ever be “apps”, though there may be a lightweight “Photoshop app” that lets you do a few on-the-fly manipulations.

In the PC world, “applet” used to refer to something similar, though obviously there hasn’t been any sort of centrally-controlled store and ecosystem.

I just consider an “App” as something that runs natively on a piece of hardware (phone/tablet/computer) as opposed to in a browser. But like lazybratsche says, it’s not like there’s a central authority that defines what an app is.

Somewhat Relevant thread.

“Killer app” has been around for a very long time. IMHO the use of “app” recently is more focused on the hardware-specific mini-application.

I too would go with the definition describing it as a program running natively on a piece of hardware.

I would definitely consider Photoshop an app. It’s an application for my windows PC. It’s just that my expectations of what an app can do change based on the targeted hardware.

So Photoshop on my PC = app and it can do amazing things with 4k resolution images.

Photoshop-light on my iPad/Android phone = app and it can add funny doodles to low/mid resolution images I took with my camera phone.

Here’s my take: I always considered the word “application” to be a Mac thing. PCs used the terms “program” and “software” more often. About the time iPhones came out is when I started hearing the term app more often. My definition of an app is a small and simple program to do something like be a calculator or keep track of your gas mileage. I think the scope is broadening now, “apps” are everywhere and are generally distributed through a central system like the iTunes or the Android Market, and now include OSX programs and Windows programs.

“App” is short for application program. To a programmer this means a program that interfaces with the final, usually non-programmer, user to accomplish something they desire. “The Killer App” has been sought by programmers pretty much since computers became mainstream, just like prospectors of old sought “The Mother Lode”. Microsoft’s Office suite is probably the best known example of a “Killer App”.

But it was jargon used mostly by programmers and others in the software/computer industry. iOS made the term mainstream. Part if this is because most of the iOS Apps do just one thing, so you need a number of them. They are also pretty cheap or even free for the most part, so people are willing to buy something that does only one nominally useful thing because the price is right, and Apples standards have made them all pretty simple to learn to use, Apples qualification process gives buyers confidence it will work and won’t screw up their device, and they don’t have to figure out where to find it or how to buy it…there is ONE source. Of course there are downsides and detractors, but I gotta say that pretty much everyone I know that has tried it is impressed.

While I agree with the next guy that it is just a short form of “Application” it is interesting that the file extension for Applications on OSX is .app

Most of the history of the term has been covered, but the marketing value of the term needs also to be looked at. Apple has made the word ‘app’ a slick common term to use, IIRC has tried to trademark it or some court battle over the use of the term by others (I think it was over the term App store), and is simular to the term Apple in spelling and pronunciation which may have a connotation of being related.

Might be worth noting that the first “app store” (Steam, on Windows) does not in fact call the installed programs “apps”. But that’s probably more because it’s designed exclusively for games. Although a game is an app, an app isn’t necessarily a game.

I’m not sure what you’re thinking about but “applet” specifically refers to a Java application that is downloaded and launched from a browser. It’s part of Java jargon. (Thence we have “servlets” and “portlets”.)

“An app is a smallish application with limited functionality (comparing to traditional applications for computers) written for a certain piece of hardware and usually downloaded from any kind of ‘app store’,” is my definition after reading this thread, and I’m comfortable with it (though I know not everyone would agree). Thanks!

I think another (perhaps minor) part of the defacto definition would be “may be simply installed by unpriviliged users”. Apps generally aren’t long-winded technical things to get working - you choose them, then you have them.

Good point!

I’m exhausted after this thread. I think I’m going to take an app. :wink:

Steam does, however, store game applications in a folder called “Steamapps”. But I can’t say for sure if it always did that or not.

I’ve been using ‘app’ to refer to programs, software etc on a Windows PC for as long as I can remember (80’s, 90’s), well before Apple came up with its appstore. It’s a natural shortening of application. Apple seem to have manoeuvred it into a buzz-word and marketing thing, but I don’t think that necessarily means the definition has changed, or narrowed.

It’s not exactly authoritative, but seems to suggest its origin is 85-90.

I’m also fairly sure Steam has always called that folder steamapps.

Yeah, it’s hardly a new application of the word, in my experience. Granted, I think it was far more common in Apple parlance ten or twenty or so years ago, and it wasn’t until the App Store that the word got significant traction in the general public.

For example, here is a 1999 PC World article that talks about graphics apps and illustration apps. Here’s one from 1994 talking of DOS apps. If you search Google books, you’ll find plenty of references to apps in the 1990s, both in a PC and Mac context. And there is, of course, the phrase “killer app” as has been pointed out.

I personally disagree with that definition. Size and functionality have nothing to do with it for me. Photoshop is absolutely an app. It’s even available in the App Store under Apps for Photographers! That said, I am willing to consider that the word has shifted in meaning as it’s moved into the mainstream. Thing is, like I said, I don’t see any evidence for that in the App Store, where you have stuff like Photoshop, Lightroom, XCode, Final Cut Pro, etc., all being sold as apps.

I think Apple’s marketing drive to make Apps a “thing” impacts different populations differently.

To a software guy, an App is obviously no different than any other user application software except in the narrowest sense. But being software people, it’s harder to appreciate that that “buzz-word and marketing” actually means something even though it’s not technically very meaningful.

To a very non-technical App user, or a business man who wants to have his own App, the marketing works and it seems like a meaningul “thing” to them. Meanwhile it’s hard for them to appreciate on a technical level that it’s not profoundly any different than any other user application.

Are we even sure that the modern concept of “app” came from the older concept, and that both just didn’t come from a shortening of application?