Apps vs. Applications: What’s the Difference & Does it Matter?

apps_vs._applications

The recent acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook for an estimated $16B has reinvigorated my personal internal debate between apps vs. applications. Is there a difference between apps vs. applications, and does it even matter?

It’s a topic we talk about often at TrackVia since our solution is an application platform for business users. We help non-technical business people become Citizen Developers by building their own custom applications and online databases with clicks, not code. After all, who better to design and build business solutions than the business people who use them every day to do their work?

Apps vs. Applications

Like a lot of people, I’ve always casually distinguished apps vs. applications by device form factor. Apps were things I used on my phone or tablet. Applications were things I used on my laptop. However, that simplistic view is probably way too narrow and no longer the consensus. You can have apps on desktops or laptops, and conversely, you can have applications that run on phones.

So what’s really the difference? Here are some common ways people try to make the distinction between the two.

Function

A blog post from Tahoe Partners about a round table discussion at the Gartner Portals, Content and Collaboration Summit held last year highlighted one way to differentiate apps vs. applications. According to the post by David Sidwell, the expert roundtable consensus was that the difference centered around functionality.

App = Software designed for a single purpose and performs a single function.

Application = Software designed to perform a variety of functions.

So for example, I have the Yahoo! app on my phone. When I tap it on my phone, it performs the singular task of opening the Safari browser and directs me to Yahoo’s mobile-optimized website. Once on their website, I have access to the Yahoo! application, where I perform lots of different functions from searching the Internet to accessing my email.

However, form factor can play an important role. As one of our super-smart TrackVia mobile engineers pointed out to me, many “apps” today leverage a key piece of technology that’s unique to a mobile device or just more natural to use with a phone or tablet. For example, TrackVia’s mobile app is optimized to take advantage of key components of mobile devices.

Value

Although probably a little dated, another way I’ve heard people distinguishing apps vs. applications is value. Some suggest that apps just feel less valuable — disposable even. If an app doesn’t work or you don’t need it, you simply delete it. But if an application doesn’t work, well, life becomes a little more difficult.

Apps = If an app stops working, it sucks, but life goes on.

Applications = If your application stops working, it likely causes you to stop working.

Using the Yahoo! example again, if for some reason my Yahoo! app (that opens my browser and takes me to their mobile site) stops working, no biggy. Although way less convenient, I can easily open Safari on my phone and type in Yahoo!’s URL. But if Yahoo!’s website and application go down, I lose my ability to search and check my email — and that’s not good.

This subtle and subjective distinction that apps are somehow less valuable is probably why they’re often free. In a recent report by Gartner, the analyst firm estimated that by 2017 94.5 percent of all mobile app downloads will be free. Of course, Google is mostly free and I use it for search, email, documents and a half dozen other important things at work and in my personal life. Still, I know personally that I pause when there’s a price associated with an app I’m about to download to my phone — even at $0.99. Maybe my expectations are just different. I expect apps to be free, whereas I expect to pay for applications. And if my expectations are different, then there must be some difference between apps vs. applications — real or just perceived.

Activity Type

Even more uncommon, I have on occasion heard debates in small circles arguing that “apps” are things that people generally use for leisure. Things like games, chatting and sharing with friends, browsing and so forth. Applications on the other hand are things that people do “real work” with. Things like sending emails, collecting or manipulating data, buying or selling. This may have been more true in the early days, but I don’t think it passes the sniff test. Still, it’s one you may hear from time to time.

Why this matters

By now, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why does this matter?” It’s a fair question. As I alluded to earlier, I think it matters because when it comes to software or technology, people’s expectations matter. Your expectations matter. Your employees’ expectations matter. Your customers’ expectations matter. And if you have similar expectations from apps and applications, you may be setting yourself up to be disappointed, frustrated, or just downright angry.

In the end, you can differentiate between apps vs. applications anyway you like. I think what matters most is to understand and do your best to clearly define what you’re trying to do, whether it’s with an app or application. Spending a little time doing this upfront will give you a clear use case. And with a clear use case in mind, you can better define what you expect your app or application to actually do.

These are just my thoughts on the topic of apps vs. applications. What do you think? Is there a difference between apps vs. applications, and does it matter? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.