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What is an App?
A shortened, slang application.
January 12, 2011

I've been thinking about this question a lot over the past year. It may sound silly given the ubiquity of the word, but despite all the "apps" on our phones and webpages and other devices, I'm not sure we have a good sense of what it means, or what that meaning implies.

I was happy to fall upon this nice explanation by Steven An, left in a comment on a Gamasutra article about the new Mac App Store:

I think the primary thing that Apple did was create and market the concept of the "app" as a $1-5 unit. They're doing to software what they did to music: they broke it up into little pieces and then gave consumers a nice place to shop for the pieces. Before, the channels of distribution were much clunkier and inert. This is very much a good thing for smaller devs. Apple has removed so much of the headache of marketing ("Just find it on the AppStore!"), setting up payment systems, installation, etc.

This is a good start, but it only describes the business logic of the app store and its resulting apps. There's a bigger question embedded in An's observation: what happens when we break software up into tiny pieces?

The American Dialect Society may have inadvertently answered the question. Earlier this week they named the term 'app' word of the year. The Society's rather abrupt definition is as follows:

The shortened slang term for a computer or smart phone application.
It's reasonably accurate of course, but an "app" is really much more than just a shortened slang term. It's not just the term that's shortened, and it's not just the term that's slanged. It's also the application itself that's shortened and slanged, as An's comparison to music singles implies. The days of the software office suite are giving way to a new era of individual units, each purpose-built for a specific function... or just as often, for no function at all.

And there's the rub of the new era of apps. The software suite may have been an authoritarian regime, a few large companies offering a few top-down visions of how to use computers productively. But like the LP record, it told a coherent story—or at least presented a complete aesthetic.

Apps shatter the very idea of aesthetic coherence, turning computers into weird samplers that betray the smooth, slick exteriors of the iDevices that contain them. It's no accident that these gadgets also refuse the multitasking and deep integration of traditional graphical computer operating systems. Multitasking may have been omitted from early app-focused devices like the iPhone for reasons of limited hardware resources, but it's evolved to become anathema to the app aesthetic.

Instead, apps are meant to be isolated from one another. To use a term I coined last year when the iOS 4's rudimentary multitasking feature was released, apps latertask, they don't multitask: "Rather than putting apps away entirely, they remain close by but inactive, like a dogeared book on the desk rather than a closed book on the shelf." Apps are like tic-tacs, always sweet, always there, but usually there for no reason.

The app is a mixed blessing for computer aesthetics, just like music sampling is for music. On the one hand, we get many variations of the same thing that can surprise us when refashioned in different permutations. But on the other hand, we get fewer coherent, complete takes on things. And there's a risk that deep meaning slowly seeps out of every unit as each does less and less. Apps and web services like Foursquare and Facebook give us a preview of this potential future agony, one in which the most basic chunk of meaning is the conveyance of a piece of data from a database to a screen and back again.

Critics will respond that such services allow people rather than corporations to define what's interesting or important to them, individuals synthesizing the configuration and use of apps like teenagers fashioning mix tapes. There's both truth and gloom in this observation. As exhilarating and rousing as that feeling might be, it's precious and fragile too.

If the baroqueness and oppression of applications is akin to the overly complex prog rock of Rush, then the lightness and simplicity of apps is akin to the carefree buoyancy of Ke$ha. Shortening and slang are easy and comfortable. They make you feel good. But how long can anyone get away with eye glitter and hot pants?

Comments (36)
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It fits with App from "App..le", thus subtly aligns the form with Apple and its tedious products. And I guess it's a little more elegant (and makes you feel more like paying for it) than using the term "widget".

Barney Rubble on January 13, 2011 12:57 AM

Hmm, interesting! For me, the word does strongly imply a certain kind of "aesthetic coherence" — it's gotta have smooth corners, no visible screws, and Just Work, like an iPod (or a tic tac). Like GarageBand could be an app, but not Emacs. It should be a kind of high-integrity object: closed, well-designed, polite, more intuitive than a sandwich grill.

@Barney
Yes, widget is a terrible term isn't it. It also bears the burden of a different era, as a generic name for a manufactured good.

@mbrock
Yes, I see your point. Individually, apps have a coherent aesthetic, particularly a visual aesthetic. But that aesthetic is all surface, like a tic tac, (or like a Ke$ha song).

Much more elegant than widget; widget has many other modern uses in addition to being old manufacturing jargon. wxWidgets, desktop widgets, blog widgets...is there an app for that?

What'd you make of the Wired article, The Web is Dead - highlighting the future of apps?

@Bobby George
It seems to me that the web is appifying too. Apps aren't just appearing on mobile devices and tablets, but everywhere else as well. Most tech start-ups these days make tic-tac products, don't they? So it seems to me that the web is just another platform for apps, and that the app trend is broader than any one platform.

Great points and I agree with almost all of them. I like the analogy of office suite to album and app to single. But a single doesn't have to be Ke$ha. It could also be The Beatles - simple, clear, with almost no waste, but incredibly satisfying and enjoyable.

individual units, each purpose-built for a specific function

Reminds me of the basic command line utilities that come with UNIX-like operating systems.

What about full applications—like Aperture.app—that are now available in the App Store? What I find most daunting is how we begin to differentiate between desktop applications (xyz.app) and "iDevice" apps. Last year if I asked, "Whats your favorite app," I would expect someone to know I was talking about an iPad or iPhone. But later this year, the same question might mean anything from a simple 99-cent calculator to a robust $80 productivity program. I don't just see simplified slang either, I see confusion.

So, apps are to applications what blogs are to books and what YouTube is to movies?

Mister Snitch on January 13, 2011 2:18 PM

@Justin
You're right of course. And there are non-tic-tac apps. But there are also a lot more Ke$has, aren't there?

@Brian
Right, or Linux package management. The difference is that those utilities are usually used together synthetically.

@Mister Snitch
There's something shared between YouTube clips and apps, at least. A smallness and sweetness and immediacy, a one-use-ness. But instead of blogs, it's probably tweets, no?

Ian, you almost hit the nail on the head there with your comment about Unix utilities being used together synthetically.

Perhaps you're not a Mac user, but that's exactly the model that's been evident on MacOS X... many smaller apps work in concert to complete a task. When content can be moved from app to app via copy/paste, drag and drop, or file import/export, you're not locked in to a specific application's domain.

Instead of being stuck with using Office's horrid drawing tools, I can pop over to OmniGraffle, create stunning diagrams, and then copy and paste them *directly* into Keynote, for instance. Hell, I can drag and drop it.

This small-tools-in-concert is not new. It is decades old in the Unix philosophy, and MacOS X, even more than Linux, embodies the best expression of this in current consumer OSs... there are well-formed and solid methods for sharing data of a variety of types, from raw text to images, to audio, to full video, seamlessly. It's not perfect (Office, I loathe you and your ways...), but it beats anything else out there right now for productivity outside of a megasuite walled garden.

There's a reason that 'app' has been the standard term for an application on MacOS X since before there *was* a MacOS X... it came from NeXT. Again, the Unix philosophy taken to the GUI.

This isn't new. The rest of the world is finally just catching up.

While I agree with your point about app size and the analogy to music singles, you seem to have an inherent bias towards apps that I don't think is warranted. They are small programs because iphones and ipads are smaller machines, thus they are less useful, but there are many that do very useful things. Google Maps is a built-in app that conveys your data to the server and back again to magical effect, being MUCH more useful than on a computer since the app knows your location too. I think that apps will certainly expand in scope over time and as device capabilities increase, just as PC applications have. And since apple provides fairly complete tools for developers, apps are actually much more alike in the way you interact with them than they are different, which is great from a useability perspective. You have many functions, each program fulfilling one, with similar interfaces. Kinda like the Unix philosophy, but with less flags to memorize.

The word "app" goes hand-in-glove with the proliferation of small, appliance-like applications that depend on internet connections and services to do a few things well.

In my grandfather's working lifetime - he was a tool and die maker - electric motors were pricy, all-purpose devices, and users expected to modify them with attachments for each new use. When he retired in 1962 grandpa described his surprise when General Electric proliferated cheaper, smaller, single-purpose electric motors after the Second World War. By analogy, web services and web browsers are an old-fashioned, all-purpose electric motor.

Andre Friedmann on January 13, 2011 2:44 PM

It's very Unix-y, though, innit?
Do one thing: do it well.

Then again, I hate albums too -- I think "song" is the atomic unit of music and an album is just a stable molecule of its component atoms (reinforced by the way on most albums, 9/12 of the songs feel like B-side filler.)

@Andre Mora
Things are indeed becoming more confused rather than less. I was surprised to learn that Apple was supporting the Mac App Store as a general digital distribution channel in addition to a single-purpose "app" channel. Perhaps Apple is itself struggling with this question, since they make LPs rather than singles.

@Jason Smith
But it's the "in concert" bit that apps (in the current sense) seem to be displacing. That's the argument I'm making. (Yes, I use macs and UNIX for many many years).

@Pedro
As a critic, it's my job to have a bias, particularly when so few others seem interested in doing so. I own and use these devices too, but it's time we stop and ask how they are changing our experience of the world and to ponder what we think about those changes.

@Andre Friedmann
Interesting point.

@kirkjerk
The music analogy may not be the best one... I was trying to follow Steven An's lead in using it as a comparison, one he chose because of the origins of the app in the iTunes music store. But you're right, most albums haven't been more than collections of n+1 songs for some time.

@Ian: When you say 'current apps'... I'm confused - are you saying that 'current apps on the desktop' are no longer working in concert, and moving towards walled gardens, ala Office? Or that 'current apps on the iOS and small devices' are not following through on that ability?

If the former, I disagree - the use of non-traditional storage on the back end (such as databases) doesn't bother me much, given (and assuming the continued availability of) the ubiquitous data transfer abilities in the UI. I can still get data from app to app to let each add something new to the whole project.

I do agree, when you are speaking of the iOS apps... there's a lack of flow between them that I would like to have. Intelligent copy/paste is fairly rich on the platform (text, images, URLs, addresses, phone numbers, etc), but it's not as widely used as it could be, IMO.

I think there's a disconnect I'm seeing from many who are not used to that on a desktop OS (ie, Windows and even most Linux users), in that they expect to go through the file system to move data from app to app. (Sorry, exe to exe. :) ) The lack of a file system throws them badly... but since I'm more used to doing live transfers between apps, doing a copy/pause/launch/paste mambo doesn't seem odd. It feels natural. This is why I asked of your OS usage - there's a rather fundamental difference of expectation between the user groups, in my experience. Pointing this out to new MacOS X users usually results in a "No way... you can do that?" response. It just doesn't *occur* to them.

We've seen the iOS APIs and underpinnings improve greatly, I hope this is another area that they get polished sooner rather than later.

Honestly, music is a pretty good analogy because of the similarities of distribution changes in recent years, and in particular with what Apple has done to the models. The point isn't that applications historically were well-constructed works of genius, it's that you had to buy a bunch of stuff you don't want or need. Just like buying albums.

If I just wanted to edit text documents and maybe put together a slideshow or two, I would buy Office in 1998. Now I'd just pick up some free or cheap apps that do exactly what I want. Just like how in 1998 I'd buy a CD at Circuit City if I liked a single, but now I might just get the one song I really want from iTunes.

Just as the Web Browser leveraged HTML to simplify the gargantuan complexity of the superset SGML, enabling online search, sales and many other useful activities with minimal user input, apps have arrived on mobile devices and through embedded browsers, simplified tasks even further by hiding the remaining complexities of the Web to narrow down data acquisition and task completion.

Apps will evolve in functionality in pace with the development of the devices on which they run and the networks over which they traverse (they are already starting to multi-task and use as input the output of other apps, as witness Audio Copy and Paste used by several musical recording apps, and Midi Mobiliser as well).

Eventually as they become more complex another simpler paradigm will emerge to simplify the process of data capture even further.

airmanchairman on January 13, 2011 3:58 PM

Apps are merely tools that can be used to gather/share/express something (information, meaning, playfulness, uselessness). Our brains are the systems that collect that data from the apps and synthesize it into something meaningful or useless.

Continuing on the trend of app interoperability, we have the eBay app using RedLaser (a standalone bar-code scanning and reading app which has since been bought by eBay) to enhance the functionality of its online auctioning.

Bump is a social networking app which can use PayPal and the accelerometer to exchange funds between users at the mere touch ("BUMP") of their hands.

Developers are now starting to collaborate to leverage the evolving power and sophistication of mobile devices to "daisy-chain" functionality in ways that will improve over time.

airmanchairman on January 13, 2011 4:15 PM

"Logic Pro.app" and "Adobe Photoshop CS5.app" and "Finder.app" are not small and not new and they have very definite purposes. If your first OS X was an iPhone then don't imagine it all started there.

Also, lots of tiny apps is not new, that's what Unix is: diff and ls and fsck and so on. It even has the incoherence you're talking about. xnu is running on your iPhone 24/7.

Apple has definitely broken up the suite — look at iWork on one DVD or as 3 separate apps on both App Store and Mac App Store — but I certainly won't cry any tears for it. The suite got us crapware and Adobe's dysfunctional mega installers and other problems.

I think what you're talking about is "pop apps" … it's so easy to buy and use an app from App Store that a gimmicky 99 cent fart app is possible, or a Lady Gaga app. But both Apple App Stores also have many truly useful apps. There are surprisingly serious music production apps for iOS for example. Many writers are finding an iPad and one of many great writing tools to be a revelation.

But to answer your question "what is an app?" … it's a digital machine. Could be a music box, could be a calculator, could be a TV, could be a game. Any digital machine. Doesn't matter if it is big or small, it just has to be useful, it just has to work well, and be interesting to some users.


Hamranhansenhansen on January 13, 2011 5:57 PM

@Jason
I was saying that current apps on the iOS and small devices are not following through on that ability.

@Justin
...it's that you had to buy a bunch of stuff you don't want or need. Just like buying albums...
That's often true. But there's a flipside to this coin, too: (good) bigger software approaches a problem coherently, like a (good) album does. It's not that one is better or worse, but that the two forms dance with one another uncomfortably.

@Hamranhansenhansen
Let's not confuse "app" as a file extension (or 'APPL' as a file type) for the current concept of the app...

The breakdown of large software suites into smaller components, along with the Apple link, has a slight echo of OpenDoc to it.

About the latertask aesthetic: there is actually something potentially lovely and soothing in how the machine politely pretends it doesn't multitask, vs a sprawling desktop that makes humans pretend that they can. It's an aid to focus that I've learned to appreciate.

@kirkjerk
Yes, we're clearly seeing something change in our expectations for work with computers. While some might see it as a step back, it might very well be the opposite.

its funny. Ive been in the software industry for a long time. Client / Work for hire kind of stuff. the notion that an App can exist for a very explicit and discreet use is like someone singing a song in my ear.

Unfortunate analogy. Dark Side of the Moon is Microsoft Office? Maybe not.

I miss rock as full length art. Bloated applications, not so much.

I would say apps are desegregation, merging software that was formerly segregated. The apps are an attempt at breaking up large programs with few customers to millions of customers on a broader range at cheaper prices.

If a five hundred unit apartment building is for sale for $100 million dollars who can buy it? Few people. If the apartment building is turned into five hundred condominiums for a much lower price many new buyers are created.

Apps are ways of selling more software to more people for less money. People will waste $1 on a ring tone or app. Who will buy a ring tone for $500 or $100? Few.

Most of the apps are silly and wasteful entertainment. The point is to make money. There are few elites and many consumers created. My question is where is all this going? Where are the goal posts?

I fear a totalitarian state where Google and Facebook know everything as a shadow government and the sheeple know nothing, entranced by their "apps" but not knowing what's going on.

jack goldman on June 3, 2011 1:51 PM

For a word that has no meaning that was

a hell of an explanation.

joe muscatello on June 19, 2011 4:54 AM

this is not true apps range from $1 to $400

Hamranhansenhansen muscatello on September 12, 2011 10:11 AM

I typed the question “”what is an app” into my browser and followed the link to your site, wanting to make sure I was using the term accurately. I read on in vain.

First, Steven An did not “explain” what an app was but instead described it’s place in the market, as you yourself point out. The American Dialect Society did not offer a “definition” of app but the etymology of the word.

So let’s try a little clarity. What is an app? An app is a type of computer programme that manipulates data. Rather than downloading it onto your own local computer, you access it through the web. Unlike a web page that simply presents static data, an app takes your input, processes it and returns you a result. For example, you can supply a currency conversion app with an amount in euros and it can return you the equivalent amount in Indian rupees.

An app is not the same thing as an application just as a dog is not the same thing as an animal. An app is merely one example of a class of things we call applications.

I don’t understand why you see the app and the office suite as antithetical. Both are merely tools. The only question is, is an app or an office suite the right tool for the job. When writing, I use a sophisticated word processing program to manipulate my text in a multiplicity of ways – changing the font, spell-checking for typos, indexing, formatting paragraphs. But if I want to know how much a hotel room in Paris costs, I will use an app to convert euros into my native pounds. To unscrew something, I will use a screwdriver not a tool box containing hammers, chisels, wrenches and spanners; when I move home I will use the tool box to carry all my tools with me.

“Aesthetic” only comes in when you are talking about the elegance and simplicity of the coding of a computer program or its interface. Does an app or an office suite do precisely what I want? Does it do it with the minimum fuss and intervention on my part? It really is that simple.

Oooops. *"...its place in the market."

LOL - and now having read other sites I find I am wrong, that all I was talking about was Web-based apps and that apps can be native! You can see why I came here in the first place, even if I did not get the answer to my question "What is an app?"

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