Liberal Arts kind of guy who wormed his way into Information Technology here.

Part of my job involves explaining technology to people who have little technical aptitude at all, so I look for ways to break things down into the simplest, most commonly-understandable words.

I've noticed something: in my youth, people used the word "program" as a synonym for "software" or what we would now call "applications".

Lately (say, in the last ten-fifteen years) I don't see "program" used much at all.

Is there a reason this word fell out of favor beyond style? Is there a fundamental difference in an "application" vs a "program" that I'm missing out on, or could I use these interchangeably when speaking with less tech-savvy folks who need it in the simplest language possible?

4 Answers 4


Program, software and application referto different development of computer technology:

Program- A set of instructions telling a computer what to do.

Software- the programs and other operating information used by a computer. Software can be made up of more than one program. All-encompassing term that is often used in contrast to hardware (the tangible parts of a computer)

Application- A program or group of programs that is designed for the end user. Application software (an application) is a set of computer programs designed to permit the user to perform a group of coordinated functions, tasks, or activities. Application software cannot run on itself but is dependent on system software to execute.


  • The quoted definitions don't quite make explicit what the OP wants to know: what exactly are the differences among these three concepts? What makes something one program, rather than two? What is the 'other operating information', in the definition of software, that does not constitute a program? What is the relation between the first two sentences in the definition of an application (which of them is the definition)?
    – jsw29
    Dec 9, 2019 at 16:01
  • Thanks - appreciate it!
    – jkp1187
    Jul 6, 2020 at 12:53

To me, "program" refers to a coherent collection of lines of code, dedicated to some purpose.

I view "application" as referring to a collection of programs, data base objects, graphics, and other stuff, intended to fulfill a more diverse, comprehensive purpose than a simple "program".

"Software" is a collective term that can be used to refer to an individual program or application, or a library of such stuff. Or it can refer to a measly few lines of code which is not coherent enough to be considered a "program". It's merely the stuff that isn't hardware.

(Source: Having worked in the computer industry for about 45 years.)


You should use whatever terms your audience will best understand. Apps are what most of the world now calls what used to only be called programs.

There's no bright-line difference between "program" and "app", except perhaps that apps are almost always user-facing where programs need not be.

I can't cite any authority for this except 50 years of application programming experience. (-:

  • 2
    To me an "app" is something on a smartphone, or maybe a gizmo on a web page. No serious programming is referred to as an "app".
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 8, 2019 at 21:46
  • @HotLicks - You're right. I'm using app here only as shorthand. Read "application" in each instance. Better?
    – Jim Mack
    Oct 9, 2019 at 0:04
  • "Application" is a term you use in the sales pitch.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 9, 2019 at 0:05

While it is true that program, software, application (or app) all have different meanings - this is a technicality. In general use, I would say to use whatever your audience will understand best - for most of the population "app" is a pretty general term which can be applied to mean pretty much whatever you like.

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