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Why Apps Reign Supreme

The word “app” gets tossed around, but there’s much more to them than the mozzarella sticks you order before dinner. Here’s our take.

September 03, 2013

The term “APP” has become so common, we forget to acknowledge it was a specialized term generally only used in corporate environments five years ago. How and why have it become the dominant everyday technology term?

Apps vs Software.

What’s the difference between software and an app? If you ask 100 different people, you’ll probably get 100 different answers.

“Software” is an umbrella term that encompasses everything from Call of Duty to Microsoft Excel. For the most part apps (or applications) are a form of software. Traditionally, software refers to a packaged product, and an application refers to a relatively small, customized piece of code used for a specific task. They’re built for mainframes, servers, desktops or mobile devices, and may or may not rely on an Internet connection.

But, the difference truly lies in what you mean by “app.” 

“Apps” in the Cultural Sense.

Mobile applications usually come to mind when someone says “app.”  They’re made for mobile devices, are downloaded on "app stores" like iTunes and Google Play, and are accessed through an icon on your phone’s desktop. Creating these can be challenging for a developer  as different mobile apps need to be created for Apple, Android and Blackberry, and for the most part the code can’t be shared between device platforms. Instagram, Facebook, many and social media sites all have mobile applications.Today, when most people think “apps,” they see smartphones, tablets, and icons.

mobile apps ss

Mobile web applications are accessed through a mobile device’s browser, and rely on web access. So while Facebook has a mobile application (the icon shortcut), it has a mobile web application (essentially a website designed specifically for mobile) when it’s opened in the browser. Some websites are designed and enhanced to meet mobile needs.

Google Maps's Mobile Web App vs its Mobile App 

Google Maps MW App address

Google Maps MW App really

Google Maps Mobile App Logo

Google Maps Mobile App

ReadWrite posits if it’s no more than a “linguistic fad,” but looking to Apple, you can’t help but wonder if that’s the case. In 2011, Apple sued Amazon for launching an “Amazon App Store,” believing they had rights to the word (they claimed App stood for “Apple,” but we all know the truth). This was rejected, but speaks to the importance of the word in everyday life.

Web Applications.

Web applications use the web and browser capacities to accomplish honed task(s.)

Differentiating web apps (or web applications) from web sites is confusing, as boundaries are dynamic. The important takeaway is apps are generally small, and do something specific. Some photography sites are web applications (think Flickr’s website on your mobile browser, LinkedIn on your desktop or Yahoo! Mail on your tablet browser,) whereas a company’s marketing page is probably a website. Such sites can be accessed by mobile device browsers, but only if they have web access.

Widgets fall under this category from a technical standpoint, but their presentation is more similar to a mobile app. They’re built from the same programs as web applications and access networks, but are packaged and installed more closely to mobile counterparts.

Examples of web applications include browser add-ons, online retail stores, email platforms and Flash games.Flash Games 2

Desktop Applications.

Desktop applications run on a desktop, and don’t need web access to function. They could be represented by icons and often come standard with new computers.  Examples include Paint, Notepad and iPhoto. They could also refer a custom “application” used for a specific purpose within a corporate environment.

desktop apps

 This chart can help clear up differences:





Mobile Web



Open through browser on computer (Chrome, Safari, FireFox, IE, etc)

Open through icon downloaded in Google Play, iTunes, etc.

Open through browser on device at http://m.facebook.com

Photo Editing

iPhoto, Paint, Microsoft Office Picture Manager

Sites like Flickr and PicMonkey—launched by computer

Instant Retro Photo, PicSay (Android); PicStitch, Be Funky Photo Editor (Apple)

Flickr, etc, launched through mobile browser


Comes stock on Microsoft in “Accessories”—doesn’t need Internet

worldofsolitaire.com; games.com; solitaire-cardgame.com

The Solitaire Games (Apple); Solitaire Free Pack (Android)

worldofsolitaire.com; games.com; solitaire-cardgame.com opened in mobile browser

Now, onto the next question: Why are they so popular?

Consumerization.app store

How we use technology has changed significantly. Traditional users needed experts and IT support to navigate and discover new software and applications, and for the most part apps were designed around business tasks. Now your Grandmother uses a smartphone to send photos of her bridge game. 

Modern mobile apps are often easier to use than older packaged software, because of their singular, task-driven nature.

Finding them is convenient: mobile apps are in the “app store.” Mobile and web apps can be located through search engines. Often they’re accompanied by write-ups, reviews and ratings.

Installation is simple; it usually takes no more than a couple clicks, maybe a password entry. When it’s time to update, the user is notified, and even that’s no more than a couple clicks. Some web applications, and most mobile web applications, don’t need installation at all. 


Compartmentalization yields simplicity. Mobile apps function to accomplish a specific task or set, which is why there’s always “an app for that.” End-users search through categorically-divided, informative “stores,” particularly for mobile apps and widgets. 

After figuring which suits their needs, it’s downloaded it for one purpose, presumably nothing more (you’re not going to use your fitness app to check stock prices.) Icons separate them and make for easy access.


Apps are developed and brought to market faster (and often in an extended beta period). Many mobile app developers are freelancers, and the field is growing rapidly—up 8% in 2010 to over a million. The sheer volume means more products are brought to market.

Their nature lends themselves to a quick launch. They usually cater to one need—be it a game, sports scores or special database—so while it’s still difficult to create, developers don’t need to integrate databases or create extremely large tools.

Web apps are sometimes designed for a specific device or browser (Chrome, Firefox, etc.), and mobile apps are always (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry,) so extra planning isn’t needed to accommodate multiple devices.

Finally, they’re quick and easy to find, install, update, and delete. They’re centrally-located and always improving. Users are eager to try new ones (and not hesitant to delete) because so many are free, or at least cheaper than a heavy-duty software!


It goes without saying that the Internet is part of everyday life. Instead of buying CD-ROMs and installing games, or watching TV and movies, people turn to the Internet for information, communication and entertainment.

Tablet sales are expected to exceed 100 million this year. Half of American adults and teenagers have smartphones, up 21% from 2011.

Luckily for apps, they mix like milk and cookies with portable, wireless devices. They’re both small, and serve a wide variety of need. In fact, the average smartphone has 41 apps.

For now, it seems mobile apps are the king of the software castle. They’re quick to produce, easy to use, are meant for Internet use and are a great fit for the most popular devices on the market. 


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