What the Heck is an “App”?

What is an app or apps?Recently I spoke at an event and used the word “app” in my remarks.  Afterward, someone approached me and said,  “I enjoyed your talk … but, can you please explain, what is an ‘app’?”

Talk about a reality check!  It was like getting a bucket of cold water in my face.  It was a perfect reminder of a lesson I know to be true and often preach, but in this case didn’t live up to.  That lesson is:  we sometimes throw about the latest tech words that we assume others will know, because we spend much time online and dealing with technology and the words are common to us.  But the general population may still consider words such as “app” to be unintelligible lingo.

In January 2011, the American Dialect Society named “app” the word of the year for 2010.  That action alone says a lot.  Being named word of year signifies that a term is trendy and growing in popularity.  However, just because the use of a word is growing, we shouldn’t assume that everyone knows it — yet.  That’s because being named word of the year also implies that the word is newly prominent.  If the word were utterly commonplace like “dog” or “cat” it wouldn’t have been singled out.  Therefore, we should recognize that not everyone will know the word “app” at this point.

So I am going to try to explain what an app is. And it’s one of those words that sounds harder to understand than it really is.

Defining “App”

The word app is a noun, and it’s short for “application.”  Application in this case refers to a software application — in other words, an app is a software program.

But an app is not just any old software program — it’s a special type of software program.

An app typically refers to software used on a smartphone or mobile device such as the Android, iPhone, BlackBerry or iPad, as in “mobile app” or “iphone app.”

But the  phrase “Web app” or “online app” is also used in a business setting as an abbreviation for “Web application” or “online application” — meaning software that you access and use while online, via a browser, instead of software residing on your computer (such as Microsoft Word).

We could get more esoteric, as this definition does, preferring to think of an app (at least in the sense of an app used on a mobile device) as being a “shortened” or narrow software application, that perhaps does just one function or that provides a small bit of entertainment.  While that definition holds some appeal when referring to mobile devices, it doesn’t really address the word “app” when used in the sense of an online software service.

For small-business purposes, we don’t need to get complicated.

For most of us, it’s sufficient to think of an app this way:  an app is a software program that you use online or on mobile devices.  

Apps often have a specific narrow use, such as a “shopping app” for your smartphone. But that’s not always the case.  Some are very broad and perform a lot of tasks.  However, they all share one thing in common.  They are all a piece of software that you use.

Why An App Is Important

Now that we’ve got that figured out, the next question you’re probably asking is “why should I care about apps?”  Two good reasons:

(1) Web apps or online apps can be a faster, cheaper, more efficient way of deploying software in your business.  Rather than buying a software license, having to install it on your servers or local computers, keeping up with updates — all of which can be expensive and take time — you can simply go online and sign up for an account.  In a few minutes you are using the software.  And typically you pay a monthly fee, meaning that you don’t have to pay license fee up front.   For more on what you can do with Web applications, read:  How Small Businesses Use Web Apps – and What to Look For.

(2) Mobile apps extend the reach and productivity of your business.  Once you equip your mobile device and/or your employees’ mobile devices with apps, then you and they can perform all sorts of business functions while out of the office traveling, on sales calls, making service calls, etc.  A mobile app usually enables you to do something specific, like accessing your bank account in the case of a banking app,  or run payroll with a payroll mobile app.  Check out: 10 Ways to Use Mobile Devices to Run Your Business.  

So the next time someone bandies about the term “app” you’ll be in the know.

More importantly, perhaps you’ll be in a position to say, “Oh sure, we use all sorts of apps to run our business better.”


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

88 Reactions
  1. Martin Lindeskog


    Thanks for a detailed description of the word application. I think that the app market will grow exponential during the years to come. As an example, I have more than 100 apps on my iPhone.

    • An app is pop link connection, to the server that have the program, and icon have a access direct to the program,
      icon do not net a pop link connection to access the program in the server, lake phones or tablet, they are terminal mode and computer are open system, they will lake to control all the people and system by terminal mode and eliminate the icon, sorry for the people be free ja.jaj.ja new order and control is coming, the 3 letter of apple is app

  2. Neal O'Sullivan

    apps – apps …give me a break. I suggest you have a catch in your back yard instead of playing on your phone

    • So am I right in thinking an app is just an icon you click on to take you to a website? All be it a trimmed down site?

      • No, an app is not just an icon that serves as a link to a website. It opens a software program loaded on your phone or computer, as the author stated. You can look on your phone’s Settings to see how many bytes each app on your phone uses.

  3. To me apps describe any software on mobile devices or any software hosted outside the local machine.

  4. Your description of a web app is synonomous with cloud based software (e.g google docs), which is not what an app is.

    I would describe a web app as a piece of browser specific integrated software that will allow you to access some cloud based software. It allows the software to be more integrated with that specific browser than any old internet link would allow I believe through installing some of the aesthetics on the computer itself while using the internet to run the actual brains of the software.

    • What the hell is the Cloud?

      • As Gibbs on NCIS would say: “In plain English, Abby!” In the middle ages Catholic church services were conducted only in Latin. Why? So only those in the priesthood could understand what the heck was being said, of course!

        Now instead of Latin it’s techno-babble. And for the same reason: to add complexity to a communication that should be simple and easy to understand. Complexity makes it better, right?

      • To Edward, You are wrong in your off-topic assertion about the reason Catholic Church services were conducted in Latin. They were conducted in Latin because Latin had been the common language in the Late Roman Empire and early Medieval period. As German tribes infiltrated the lands that had been the Roman Empire, they influenced the transition of the common language into the beginnings of the modern languages of Europe today. Latin remained the language of government and the educated class for many centuries. Once Latin became a “dead” language, the Liturgy was still conducted in Latin because the meaning of the words would never change, unlike a living language, and so that no one could change the sacred words of the holy Mysteries on their own.
        In the future, please restrain your hatred of the Catholic Church and refrain from inserting false digs against Her on a site about apps. Thank you.

  5. Good morning, Anita:

    Thank you, THANK you, THANK YOU for my “freshman orientation” – without the beanie!

    As an “e-tarded” person just leaving my own consulting microbusiness and returning to mid-management work in higher education, I needed your easy-to-understand “tutorial” on apps.

    WARNING: I’ll be back.


    Tim Allston, APR
    Servant Leader/Director, Public Relations
    Oakwood University
    Huntsville, AL USA

  6. This is a good intro to what an app is. Thanks a lot for taking the time to put this info together for the rest of us. It is very important to be web savvy these days and you have done good work.

  7. Will I be left in the dark if I simply used my laptop only?

  8. Same here Fred except I don’t even have a laptop just a PC.

    • It is 2014, and I want many of those phone APPS to be on my laptop or plain desktop computer?

      I am in the dark — Still !!!

  9. I am certain that the Queen of England keeps her APPs in her purse.

  10. Jennifer Lawson Zepeda

    Ok…I’m one of those on the trailing edge of technology. And I still don’t understand “app” entirely. For instance, I get that Word is an app that I have on my computer. But is the Facebook I sign into, also an “app?” I’m asking this because I want to buy a Microsoft Surface and they say they don’t have a Facebook app. Does this mean I won’t be able to sign into Facebook any longer? I’m confused.

  11. People throw the word “app” around for everything. That is why it is confusing. I guess they feel important when saying app! I shall still use the word application….I am not to lazy to say the whole word!…..nor do I have to try to be important and a know it all.

  12. so, this just another example of how people assume that everyone knows everything about the modern electrical age-there are plenty who do not and never will be familiar with modern electrical ‘applications’ stuff and the news words and their meanings. but that is ok as they all still know how to talk and write so if there is ever a major power blow out they will be the ones who won’t be panicking..
    the other thing that riles me is the continued use of ‘initials’ that form words and no-one knows what the relevance is to the conversation.

    • Are we talking about acronyms Nancy because if we are I agree with you. Another American import that we can do without.

  13. Don’t laugh at me but at times I even wondered if the “APP” was some kind of a device the extends from the IPAD or Anderiod device…like may be a flash disk is to the PC or laptop..But the better part of me suspected it would be an independent soft ware for the mobile and tablet devices…don’t blame me condering on the wide range of applications/purposes it is said to do ..it could sound a little mystic…LOL..i JUST LOVE THE SOUND OF IT

  14. A definition is fine IF you give 3 or 4 examples to follow. It’s still Greek to me without the ‘application,’ which helps clarify. I am wondering why anyone wants or needs 100apps? Give examples of what they are? Like here is an app that gives ‘farting’ noises?? Give practical business examples and the ‘silly’ ones. I am 62 and am wondering what everyone is talking about in the ‘techie’ world, so I seek out competent answers… and appreciate a good teacher using common sense applications.

  15. Thank you for such a great article about what an app is.
    I am a high school teacher and would like your permission to adopt your article into one of my lessons.

  16. How does one determine which “apps” are safe (ie. non-cloud) and which are unsecure and invasive (ie. cloud based applications)?

    • This is around three years late, but I say anything web-based obviously isn’t safe. Most apps now, for example, run by Microsoft constantly has updates that will keep your application more secure. Of course, there is a tiny risk as there is with everything, but a big brand company’s apps should generally all by stable.

  17. I think “app” has now gone beyond “software used on a smartphone or mobile device”. It’s now newspeak for what I would call a program in my distant youth, and appears to be completely synonymous with that word. For example, all the software that I can buy and download for my macbook pro is in the Apps section of iTunes – even major utilities we would once slot as a program. I teach and have a lot of contact with teens. I rarely hear the word program used to describe any piece of software anymore, even in reference to word processors, spreadsheets etc, that exist on desktop computers. They are all now labelled apps by my young proteges. A case of rapid language evolution.

  18. I know nothing about “apps” , applications.

    How do you attach them to your phone?
    What will they do for me?
    What is their purpose?

  19. An APP is nothing more than a “shortcut” to me.

  20. I upgraded from Windows XP to 8.0 when my PC died. I want a PC that is just a desk top, no APPS, no Touch screen, etc. Just KISS system. Stuck in Pa.

    • From what I understand 8.1 will let you use just desktop. You may want to do the free upgrade to 8.1. I cannot tell you how to do that. Sorry. Ask a tech savy person.

    • You can disable all the ‘apps’ that come with windows 8.1. You can also download ClassicShell (free) and that program will enable you to make your desktop look like XP, Vista, or Windows 7 so you can get right to work without learning another GUI (graphical user interface)/

    • I am with you, Kay. I don’t have apps-shmapps and I don’t need or want them. I don’t have a cell phone, a smart phone or a stupid phone. Not even a laptop. I am happy to not be connected when I am out. I don’t do facebook, twitter, linkedin and the likes. I DO use email (a lot) and my own select “apps”. I facilitate a few yahoo groups that are dedicated to certain subjects and communicate with others who are interested in those subjects. I spend many hours every day on the computer, but have no time or interest in empty, shallow and meaninless chatting. THERE IS LIFE BEYOND THE INTERNET, but unfortunately there is no app for it, not even a link. I don’t want new everything constantly, don’t have the time to unlearn what I know in order to learn something else that usually is not better than the pormer. And very important, I don’t wish to waste my money for all the new stuff that appears twice a week — I have better uses (apps?:) for my money.

      I was a system analyst and a computer programmer back in the 70s, designed large “apps” for a large university and also programmed it. Now any 15 yr old knows more than me, LOL!!! Maybe even 5 yr old. I miss the days that a person answered you when you called, not a menu that often does not even provide for your specific need. Computers are great, but please give me a break!

      • Hello Brainy

        I didn’t think that there was anyone else on the planet like me! You have made me feel much better. I don’t even have a mobile phone – just a laptop. I hope people don’t go out of fashion as “apps” do!

      • Hi Brainy;

        I think there are quite a few of us, perhaps the “older generation,” who think facebook is such a huge waste of time over mostly superficial nonsense….and how many “likes” one can get. The only reason ANY business is on facebook and requesting ‘Likes” is simply to increase their awareness and profits.

        While I do have an ancient 14 year old cellphone that I use when traveling, it often goes months without being turned on.

        Then, there is my younger brother, who worked 20 years for Hewlett-Packard, retiring from them. He thinks computers are evil and refuses to own one. Also, he doesn’t have a cell phone and just recently got his first credit card because he got tired of standing in line twice to buy gasoline.

        Personally, I enjoy this computer and spend much more time on it than I should, mostly watching You-tube videos on an endless amount of subjects.

  21. Ok. I still don’t know what an app is! I have a smartphone and have 2 ‘apps’ installed on it as no other way I could get these things. But Facebook app etc? I can just browse the internet for it. Or am I missing something here?! I’m no good with anything software related as you can tell and this isn’t in laymans terms enough for me! 🙁

  22. Thank you Anita for the freshman user friendly 101 introduction. Moving forward, I understand and am confident to communicate with my grandchildren who inherit the legacy of languages that technology presents us.

  23. I still don’t no what an APP is.

    I get emails, I no what they are people write to me not on a piece of paper but on a computer, then they press send.

    I can send emails.

    I can google, means, write a question, get an answer.

    I do surveys, I answer questions, move onto next, then submit, and get paid.


    • Leanne, let me try to clarify this.

      What is an app? Answer: An app is simply a piece of software that you can get access to and use through the Internet. Rather than a piece of software installed on your computer. “App” is short for “application.” That’s the broad definition.

      Today some people use the word “app” in a narrower sense. So let me give you the popular and narrow definition. The popular usage is as a software program you use from a mobile device. As in a “mobile app” — short for a mobile application.

      When people talk about a mobile app, they mean that the software has been configured in a certain way, usually to do a limited set of functions or transactions. That way the user doesn’t have to wade through an entire website on a small smartphone screen. Instead, the user can jump to handle a few transactions pretty quickly in a way that’s friendly to a small smartphone screen.

      Let’s take, for example, a pizza chain. On the pizza chain’s regular website, they have a lot of information and many pages. But viewing the pizza chain’s full website, when all you want to do is order a pizza on your way home from work, can be annoying and time consuming. Therefore, the pizza chain offers a mobile app. The mobile app has some, but not all the information as on the main website. But it’s configured differently so it’s easier to see on a small smartphone screen. It might just have locations, a menu and the ability to order online quickly in a streamlined way. That way, you do not have to wade through the entire website, but you can get directly to the spot where you order pizzas.

      I hope that makes some sense.

      – Anita

      • Anita,
        That was one of the best explanations I’ve ever heard. it doesn’t help me to know that APP is an abbreviation for application. I get that. But the question I keep asking, and what you just answered so well is, if I can go to a website why do I need an APP? i’m still not going to be totally savvy but this does help somewhat.

        Thank you.

      • Actually, Linda, that is a great point.

        A lot of times you don’t need to use an app as a user. You’re better off going to the site’s main website. An app that shows you a stripped-down version of a site in the form of an app can be downright annoying. One of the things I hated about my Android tablet was the way it defaulted to a Twitter app and would not even let me visit the full Twitter.com site. But I liked to use the full site. I hated being forced to use a dweezy app that hid half the Twitter features. Plus, I know the layout of the full Twitter site and didn’t have to guess where things were, as I did with the app.

        But there are times when it’s easier to use an app. For instance, take a banking app. Often they are faster and better to use with a phone. You may only use your phone to perform certain transactions, such as depositing checks, making electronic payments or checking balances. An app can let you do those things more quickly with fewer clicks. You don’t have to wade through a humongous website, trying to click on tiny menu links, just to perform certain functions that you do a lot.


      • Can you do many of the same things an app does with a bookmark? I can go to a pizza website and to the order page and bookmark it


  24. I believe an app is a software application that runs outside the browser and is installed via the devices “app” store/catalog. I believe a web app is pretty much the same but it runs within the browser.
    So Facebook has “apps” on Android, IOS, Windows 8.1, etc… yet you can access facebook via the browser on their “web app.”

  25. Josephus van Alphen

    It is just laziness to not use the word from the English dictionary. It is application, so do not be lazy

  26. This reminds me of the definition for hacker, which many people (especially in the media) associate with criminals. I won’t go into that topic… you figure it out.

    An “app,” historically (I’m talking the past few years), was meant to represent a *small* application with a specific purpose (eg. check email, play a simple game, etc…). The keyword being *small.* Not like MS Word, World of Warcraft, etc… which require Gigs of data and resources to function. Something small enough to fit on a phone, be stored in cache, etc… But the way some people have been throwing around the term, it now means whatever they want it to mean.

  27. App is short for computer application. This term i.e. App has been picked for applications running on mobile devices (smart phones, tablets, smart watches or may be some gadget in future). This term (App) is short may be because it runs on devices that are smaller than computer (desktops and laptops) !

    An important point regarding Apps vs web applications running in a browser is that browser based applications DO NOT have access to the computer local storage whereas Apps do have. An app can access photos stored in a folder of a smart phone or text messages and dump it some where over the internet. This is because Apps, by design, do have this kind of access when installed. On the contaray, web applications running in a browser do not have access to the computer local storage by design.

    In short Apps are small applications running on small devices but must used with care because information on your device can leak out with you knowing.

  28. Hi Anita,
    You gave me the best definition for apps I found on web. I´ve just created my blog-website about applications and you certainly contribute to clarify my doubts about it, and mainly if I really adopted the right word to define my business. After reading your article, I’m sure I’m on the right track.
    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge.
    Best regards,
    Valeria Correa

  29. Anita
    Thank you for this. I’m old enough to know what LSMFT means. So if the “kids” want to use app rather than application it’s fine with me. I just mumble LSMFT to them and when they ask what’s that I tell them it’s an application.

  30. It is November 2015 and I am researching what an app may be, whether a person pays for one or gets one for free. I just went through the exercise of learning the differences between a chromebook and a lap top. Every “hip” person assumes that another human being must be avidly spending his waking hours absorbing new terms. Yet, I had been a system engineer for the largest computer company in the world. And, I owned one of the first “personal computers” in the early 1980s.

    The profusion of technical terms makes assumptions that everyone must (an imperative) be a “techie”.

    Do I know what the “cloud” is? No.

    Do I know what eBay is? Yes. Over 1000 transactions.

  31. Still don’t know what an app is or does after all your wordiness. Try being succinct. Give an example. Define it. Clarify the situation don’t muddy it with circular yuppy mumbo jumbo.

    • Hello Douglas, thanks for the feedback. I’ve done some editing.

      An app is just a shorthand way of saying “a piece of software.”

      As to what an app does, it can do anything software can do. There are hundreds of thousands of apps, if not millions, and no one can be more specific than that. Need to find local eateries? There’s an app for that (actually, hundreds if not thousands of apps) that you can download to your smartphone. Need help comparing prices to find the store locally or online with the lowest price for an item? There’s an app for that, too.

      Whenever you see “app” think “piece of software I can use to do ___”.

      – Anita

      • Hi Anita,

        Your post is super accurate considering I’m reading it in 2015 (nearly 2016)! I think the thing is with an app, is that it’s so simple it’s hard to explain it’s simplicity.

        The way I look at an ‘app’ is like a addition to something. Like if you brought a new car and the rims, subwoofer and blacked out windows would be the apps.

        An ‘app’ is a smaller piece that makes the bigger ‘thing’ better.

        I hope you like my analogy Anita and I hope you don’t think I’m overstepping the mark by adding my views 🙂

        Have a very happy new year


      • Thank you, Naomi. Happy New Year.

        – Anita

  32. I’m confused more now than when I started reading this article.

    • Me, also, what the heck I cannot understand, is that how can an app (or apps) be an application. Application, is like an application form, to be filled out for something you need, etc. (Re you apply for a job.) I cannot make the connection from app to application as it is explained above.

    • Me too! Aaarrrggghhhh! Please please what exactly is an app(location) in computer world….. and does ‘it’ or ‘they’ cost any money..?

  33. God I’m happy to been born in the 40’s. If there had been apps she would have flushed me down the toilet. Have a nice day – you apps !!!!

  34. DOes one have to pay for an app or not??

  35. Joseph John Lang, Ph.D.

    It’s truly sad that human communication has been reduced to this electro-psycho-babble. The issue about the word “app” is that the non-word is by nature vague and used by cliques of people who like to sound mature or “hip” when they are really not either mature or hip.

    It is sad also that the human condition has sunk to a level whereby people are more interested in the media they communicate with than the content of what they say or do.

    Marshall McLuhan said something significant in the late 1960s when he stated, “The medium IS the message.” Now I don’t see anyone even alluding to him, but I was a student of the broadcast media then (in the 1960s), and McLuhan from his post in the university in Toronto, Canada started a world-wide conversation then. It is very relevant to “now,” as the fascination with electronics, that seems to be a rather bogus way of gaining status in society, has overtaken centuries of human dialogue, interaction, and knowledge.

    I hope we as a society find our way back to non-artificial understanding and meaning!

  36. Probably, if someone would not have asked “What is an app”, we could have missed this wonderful information. Helps a lot and this is a great knowledge share. Thank you for sharing the wonderful post.

  37. There’s only one thing worse than an “App”, and that’s the term “Software Program”. Its either “Software”, *OR* “Program”, NOT BOTH!

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