This is something that really gets my goat; a couple of years ago, the word "App", to the majority of people, meant "Applet" or 'small, simple, mobile application', i.e. software coded specifically for mobile devices. To me, this is a clear, understandable definition.

Previous question from 2011: Appropriate use of “app” vs “application”

Now, however, windows has started annoyingly calling any program an "app" and it seems to be spreading.

Definition from Internet Slang (.com):

The Meaning of APP:
APP means "Application (computer program)"

Definition from Cambridge Dictionary (.com):

  • ABBREVIATION for application: a computer program that is designed for a particular purpose:
    You can run an app on your PC that will find the files and burn them to a CD.

  • ABBREVIATION for application: a computer program or piece of software designed for a particular purpose that you can download onto a mobile phone or other mobile device:
    There are apps for everything, from learning a language to booking movie tickets.

Definition from Dictionary (.com):

  • An application, typically a small, specialized program downloaded onto mobile devices:
    The best GPS apps for your iPhone.

Origin of app:
1985-90; shortening of application

British Dictionary definitions for app

  • (computing, informal) short for application program

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
Related Abbreviations for app:

  • [software] application

Are these remnants of the original, lesser-known "application" abbreviation, which it seems was mostly used by professionals? Or is it a new meaning, brought forward by the awful desktop/tablet "hybrid" operating systems i.e. windows 8/10? If it's the latter, then to me, it seems that the word is to be made redundant, and there is no longer a common word to distinguish between a desktop program and a mobile device-specific program.

Note that almost all uses of the word "app" on the internet today are referring to an applet. Will this change in the next few years?

closed as primarily opinion-based by FumbleFingers, Peter K., Hot Licks, AndyT, Mitch Aug 31 '16 at 14:22

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    While the word evolution is interesting enough, are you really asking if the meaning will change in the future? I am afraid there are not enough flux capacitors around to answer that. – Helmar Aug 30 '16 at 15:36
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    To the extent that it's anything other than a peeve, I think this question is Primarily Opinion-Based (note that there weren't any mobile devices capable of downloading "small, specialized programs" back in 1985 when the abbreviation app started to be used). – FumbleFingers Aug 30 '16 at 15:40
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    I think that "applet" is as intrinsically meaningless (or meaningful) a word as "app" is, and so to argue about the rightness or wrongness is pointless. If people have ditched the word "applet", or "computer program" or "executable", or whatever, in favour of "app" then that's just how it goes. The context is rapidly evolving and so is its language. – Max Williams Aug 30 '16 at 15:46
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    Sorry, but "app" is short for "application", which is basically any software thingie which is not an operating system or some sort communications facility or some other piece of software which "supports" applications. An "application" can be a little ten-line program or some gigantic thingie which operates across 100 computers in a network. Trying to constrain "app" to some specific subset is not only contrary to it's true meaning but a fool's errand. – Hot Licks Aug 30 '16 at 22:00
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    « a couple of years ago, the word "App", to the majority of people, meant "Applet" or 'small, simple, mobile application', i.e. software coded specifically for mobile devices » — No. App has never been short for applet, and applets are in fact primarily non-mobile. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 31 '16 at 6:13

I think you've already demonstrated that the answer to your question is yes, the meaning is changing. But I don't know if I agree with many of the distinctions you're making.

These distinctions were arbitrary to start with, so it's hard to argue for or against any particular "rule" about what's an application versus what's an app or applet or widget or program or... you get the point. How many lines of code does an app have to be before it's an application? How many functions or features or users or... you get the point again.

You can argue for your particular understanding all you want, but I'm not sure who you're appealing to. It's not like there's a single all-powerful group who has the final say on what a word means.

I understand your annoyance, because a lot of this comes down to branding. It can feel like the marketers are taking "our" words and misusing them to appeal to mass markets, but the truth is that we never had any "rights" to define these words in the first place.

So, sure, the words are changing meaning. As they slip into the more common vernacular, the specific meaning that we originally assigned to them gets muddled.

Then again, that's also a result of the concepts themselves being muddled. Nowadays it's more meaningful to differentiate where the application or app is running: desktop app vs server app vs mobile app. We no longer have a big distinction between huge applications running on a mainframe and small apps running on local machines.

After all, we're all carrying around computers that are more powerful than the computers that got us to the moon. That's progress for you.

Edit: You can use Google Trends to see the rise of the term app:

Google Trends comparing app, application, applet, and program

This corresponds pretty obviously with the release of the iPhone and the popularization of mobile apps. As more people used mobile devices and became familiar with the term app, its meaning became more general.

Looking at it a slightly different way, you can see app rise in popularity along with mobile, iphone, and android, as terms like computer (and desktop) slowly fall.

Google Trends comparing app, computer, mobile, and iphone, and android

So, yes, the meaning of these words is changing, as they become more popular and more general. But on the other hand, the concepts behind these words are also changing, as we really no longer have a useful distinction between applications and apps (if the distinction was ever useful to begin with).

You seem to be blaming Windows for this shift in popularity and meaning, but I would argue that it has much more to do with the rise of mobile devices (not to mention Apple's "there's an app for that" advertising campaign). But I'm not sure that it really matters, since there really isn't a huge difference between phones and computers anymore anyway.

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    I like your last point. What was a sizable application thirty years ago is probably laughably small today. It's no wonder that the terminology is evolving with the times. – J.R. Aug 30 '16 at 15:59
  • Thanks for the answer. It's not only my point of view I'm arguing for, it's the common understanding. People are confused enough already. It seems although you partly answered my muddled question anyway(too many thoughts, I think).You make a good point about the past, but that was 47 years ago(yep!). I don't think any of those 'computer-terms' have changed meaning even since then, have they?... – n00dles Aug 30 '16 at 22:21
  • ...What I don't like is that the word is not, presently, evolving due to the popular use, but rather because, like you say, a brand has suddenly decided it means something different, just to make a 'hybrid' OS that people don't like and that doesn't work properly(Win10). I was hoping that it wasn't evolving and that Microsoft were WRONG to try to change it! It is my word after all. But seriously, I know I don't have a say in this, but I've done my bit to appeal to this "single all-powerful group" by posting here anyway ;-} – n00dles Aug 30 '16 at 22:21
  • @n00dles I'm not sure it's all Window's fault either. I would argue that it's more Apple's fault, with there "there's an app for that" marketing campaign. that made more people use the word "app" in a broader sense, and Windows using it is a side effect of that. See my edited answer for some pretty graphs. – Kevin Workman Aug 31 '16 at 13:18
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    @n00dles I know that you see a big difference between desktop computers and mobile devices (and I mostly agree with you), but most people don't see that difference. Most people use their phone for the exact same thing that they'd use a computer for: browsing the internet, checking email, looking at facebook, etc. To most people, they're pretty much the same thing. So to most people, the distinction just isn't there anymore. – Kevin Workman Aug 31 '16 at 17:55

Note that "app" meant application before there were mobile apps. For example Java web applications predate mobile apps, and the XML config files were like this:


I started building those around 1999 or 2000.

And applets were around at least as far back as 1996 or 1997--and "applet" meant "little application", where normal applications were desktop applications. So I don't think Microsoft's use of the word is ahistorical.

Today many people (sounds like you might be one of them) think of "app" in a narrower sense, as in mobile apps. So yeah, "app" is evolving.


Yes the word is evolving. Appplet was also an HTML tag used to enclose a small Java program. Since you would not include a huge program in a web page it gained the connotation of a small application program.

Corporates such as Apple and Google then adopted the term "app" to mean a program that you could download, particularly onto a mobile device, to perform a specific purpose without necessarily being written in Java. The place you downloaded it from, under corporate financial control, became the "app store".

In recent years Windows has launched and consolidated its own app store for devices running Windows. I suggest this was a business decision to attract new users or retain existing users who were already using "app" to mean downloadable program and unlikely to call an "app store" anything else.

In summary "app" is well under way to rivalling "program" as the generic term for a computer application, with the main impetus for the change coming from the marketing and advertising output of major international corporations. But English is a living language that changes and this is just one example of change at work


It makes more sense to think of an applet as a small app (small in scope presumably), where app is short for application. Application has been used for desktop software essentially forever. The distinction between an applet and a full application was never really binary (with the most unambiguous applets probably being pre-smartphone mobile java tools). When smartphones took off, there was no need for a distinction at all. Adoption of the term was probably aided by the coincidental match with the first syllable of "Apple" - though I wonder what apps were known as on earlier smartphones (blackberry, palm treo) - I should remember from PDAs.

In the windows case, the use of app is inevitable given that app store is widely recognised (from the smartphone world). Users may perceive a difference between a program that must be installed (possibly with a reboot, but certainly talking some time and a distinct step after any download) and an app (click to buy, short pause, click to use).

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