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When you hear the word “application” or “app”, it probably conjures up images of the programs and games we have on our smartphones. Apps are for more than just phones though, and today we’re going to break down just what the heck apps are and take a closer look at the different types of apps we use every day.

So, what is an app?

It seems fairly obvious, given the data-driven, tech-savvy world we live in. Apps are used all the time to do everything from checking our email to studying a foreign language or even just playing Angry Birds. While the term “application” does include the programs that you download on your iPhone or other mobile device (aptly named “mobile applications”), it also encompasses a broad range of software that can accomplish nearly any task imaginable.

Wikipedia defines an application as “…a computer program designed to perform a group of coordinated functions, tasks, or activities for the benefit of the user.”

These programs can run on many different types of devices including computers, phones, and tablets. Applications contrast with a type of software called “system software”which consists of things like operating systems, debuggers, and compilers.

Breaking it down…

The term application is itself fairly broad though, and can be broken up into 3 major subcategories:

  1. Mobile applications are installed on a mobile device (such as a smartphone or tablet) and can be run at any time (usually) regardless of whether the user is connected to the internet. Mobile apps are the type which you typically think of when you hear the word “app”. We’ve all heard the expression “There’s an app for that.” and indeed, there are apps for almost every purpose you can think of. As of the time of writing, Apple’s App Store has over 2 million of them available for download.
  2. Desktop applications are the programs you are probably most familiar with; like mobile apps, they are installed on a device (usually a laptop or desktop computer) before they can be run. Solitaire, Outlook, and Microsoft Word are all desktop applications. They run in a window, utilizing a user interface which is installed directly onto the user’s computer. This user interface is called a “Graphical User Interface”or GUI for short.
  3. Web applications, on the other hand, are a bit more mysterious. As ubiquitous as they are, few people truly understand what they are and how they work. Web apps are applications that can exist entirely in a website which runs from your web browser. A few examples of this type of application include: video sharing sites, online retail sites, and search engines. Web applications differ from websites in that they usually have functionality similar to a desktop or mobile app, and much of the time do not follow the page-based flow of normal websites. Instead, any data requested is loaded dynamically to the page without needing to move to another part of the site. These types of applications are called “single page web applications”. Even though they may function very much like a desktop app, web apps differ in some very important ways.
  4. Responsive web applications are where web and mobile apps meet, and comprise much of the work that we do here at We Write Code. Responsive Web Applications are web apps that are built to allow the user to access them from either a computer or a mobile phone, utilizing layouts that respond (hence the name) to the kind of device that the user is viewing from. They are different from mobile applications in that they, like web apps, run from the web and are not installed directly on your device. You’ve likely seen mobile versions of websites like Twitter or Facebook that look drastically different than the version you see on your computer; this is the power of responsive web design. When we build a web app that is responsive, you get two apps for the price of one, without the need to develop a web and mobile app separately.

As you can see, applications cover a broad range of different types of software which accomplish an equally broad range of tasks. Applications are, essentially, computer technology which is applied (hence the name) to some purpose. As computers get stronger and our understanding of technology increases, we’ll surely see more and more sophisticated applications. The only limits to what apps can do is the limit of computing power and the human imagination.

Whether you need to spellcheck your Spanish homework, check the weather, or chat online, there’s an app for that.