Home Customer Engagement Gartner Summit: The Difference between Apps and Applications

At the recent Gartner Portals, Content and Collaboration Summit, I attended a roundtable discussion titled “Why an App Isn’t an Application”. A dozen participants from various companies and the public sector discussed their current state and future plans for apps and applications. These leaders are responsible for internal systems, as well as customer facing tools and functionality. The first question posed was one that we hear a lot at Tahoe – what is the difference between an App and an Application?

Because of our iPhones, iPads, iPods, Android devices and the iTunes and Google Play stores, we are used to downloading and using apps. Many of us think that Apps are synonymous with phones and tablets, while Applications live on a desktop or laptop. This is not necessarily the case. You can have Apps on a desktop or laptop, and Applications on a tablet or phone. In fact, a few weeks ago we posted a piece on Apps in SharePoint 2013, which allows Apps to run in the desktop or on a mobile device.

So if Apps vs. Applications is not about mobile vs. desktop, then what is the difference? In the roundtable session, we landed on a consensus that an App is designed for a single purpose – one piece of functionality. An Application, on the other hand, may handle a wide variety of functions. The App focuses on doing the one piece of functionality very well and providing an outstanding user experience.

By this definition, google.com is an App. The one function it performs is search, and it provides a highly usable interface for that function. And of course Google’s search app is delivered through desktops, laptops, phones, tablets, and most everything in between. Tools like Salesforce and many internal support programs are Applications, containing a larger number of capabilities packed into a single program.

After distinguishing Apps from Applications, one of the more interesting topics covered was the idea of having multiple apps, with each doing one thing, instead of a single application that has multiple pieces of functionality. Which is better for the user? One example was a city website providing multiple services to the public, including pothole reporting, water bill payment, news updates, and much more.  Would an end user rather have one application for the city, or would they prefer multiple apps – one to report potholes, one to pay their water bill, etc.? How many apps for a single company is too many? Statistics show the average iPhone user having between 40 and 50 apps on their phone – will users want multiple apps from a single company? How will they know which of the organization’s apps provides the functionality they want? All good questions that will take time and user experience testing to figure out.

In the end, maybe the question is not whether you should be building an App or an Application, but how you can combine the best of both into something your users love. After all, users don’t care if it is an App or an Application by definition – they just want to EASILY accomplish their task, whether reporting a pothole, playing a game, executing a web search, or paying their water bill.

An expert in SharePoint and Enterprise Collaboration strategy, Dave has delivered SharePoint business solutions ranging from dynamic websites to a program to capture and track employee ideas. Dave is a regular distance and event runner and is always looking for new endurance adventures.
8 replies to this post
  1. Can you be more vague in your next description of the differences between apps and applications. I really want to sit and ponder the magnitude of this nebula! Come on man; apps do one thing with applications do multiple! Try relating it to a monetary bin: most apps are free while most applications are expensive. Or, try platform descriptions: Most applications are still resident while most apps are cloud or distributed computing platforms.

    You are starting to sound like Carly Fiorina.

    • Thanks for your comments Paul. Different opinions will almost always lead to a better answer. The particular notion of apps vs. applications in this post was “crowd sourced” by a diverse group within a roundtable discussion at the Gartner conference. Our views tend to focus on enterprise applicability vs. the consumer market. As you highlight, there are a number of differences between native mobile apps and browser based web applications. Technical differences we see include leveraging device specific API’s, building to OS specifications vs. browser nuances, commitment to an app store model, offline accessibility, etc. Our view is that cloud plays a big role in both models. As the HTML5 vs. Native Mobile App debate plays out, there will likely be plenty of opinions. Here’s one in Forbes that even speaks to a hybrid model in the future. We’d love to hear people’s opinions.

  2. This article on Apps and Applications is BS. I find so called Apps doing more than one function. In fact, Applications do one function–an editor does editing if you put it that way. Regardless what you say, an App is an application program whether it does one function or more than one function. They are both programs. Typically, Applications that does different tasks compiled of different features are usually referred as Suites.

    There are apps on windows 8. In fact, windows IE is an app on the START screen but in the IE folder on the harddrive, it is quite different looking. However, they both surf the web and do the same thing. All these so called apps that I have seen, if you want to get picky, they all perform more than one function, and to me a function is a routine in programming. Displaying a menu is a function, and finding/searching for something is a function and sorting the results is a function. and whatever else it does. To a person who has been in computers and programming they will tell you there are more than one function in any program, even the display of the menu in an app is a function. So cut the BS. an app is just an Abbreviation or perhaps something made up for people who are too lazy to say application. Yes, an App is an Programmed Application but it is simplistic one may it be in most cases. I find most of the apps I used lacking in features/functions to make the app more user friendly or even productive or conducive to someone’s work.

    • Hey Netverse. While some of our language is different, one of our main points is the same – most users don’t care whether it is called an app or application, but want to complete their desired goal in a user-friendly way. Whether a simple solution or complex solution provides this ability is based on the requirements of the situation, the design (especially the quality of the user experience) and the implementation of the solution.

  3. I have heard a similar (though brief) discussion about this on a BBC radio program. The presenters on that program were not at all convincing. You may or may not know that the BBC’s primary technology correspondent proves himself ignorant of the most basics of computing on a regular basis.

    I agree firmly with the above comment, that app is just an abbreviation for application. There is no explicit difference. I involuntarily assumed a quizzical expression when I read your explanation that an ‘app’ does a single thing, as any level of analysis shows that is not the case.

    The common calc.exe on a windows operating system could be said to perform a single function as much as any application, but it would not have been referred to as an app past a previous point in time.

    ‘App’ is just a trendy term for people who are either lazy (as already suggested) or always ready to jump on the current bandwagon without question. We have an on and offline culture that is relentless in simplifying language to the point of reducing accuracy, and I believe this is equally caused by the desire to follow trends and apathy. An example of this is that very few broadcasters can actually be bothered to call any television program by its actual name if that name consists of more than one or two words.

    There is another aspect to this dubious matter of an ‘app’ being anything but a lazy and somewhat vulgar term. Did the phrase not come into popular use following Apple’s release of its ‘App store’? I am sure Apple’s investors laugh themselves silly that as a consequence, half or more of the world’s computer users have apparently lost the ability to say the word ‘application’ without it giving them a headache and a need to go and have a lie down.

    It is all about laziness, slipping standards and trend hopping. I am surprised that anyone tries to rationalise the situation beyond that.

    ps. I am not even going to address the claim that google is an ‘app’. It is a website that is powered by a host of applications running on servers. The interface that users interact with is a form on a website and nothing more or less.

  4. This post by David is on time, not too late I believe. This is an evolving subject. Who named the stuff running on desktops/laptops/other platforms as “Applications” and why? Technology is evolving day by day. Apps and Applications both can do multiple tasks and work in computers/tabs/mobiles. Digital media such as mobile and tabs require similar functionality (like chat, calc, calendar, word processors and everything else. too) available on desktops/laptops. Now the evolving digital media is handy, everywhere access and requires everything (forget the cost paid to the networks to access 24/7). Digital media like mobile/tabs cannot hold huge memory and OS for digital platforms are still in maturing state. “Apps” is one name coined for Digital platform by whom I don’t know. But it is interesting and may stay there. There is a long way ahead to see the digital platform maturity where it is heading.

  5. I believe the post is on time by David, debate around this topic by Gartner’s research .
    This is an evolving subject (by the time I post, would have matured. huh!). If we go back and think, who named the stuff running on desktops/laptops/other platforms as “Applications” and why?, At that time, there was no digital media and evolved as today.
    Technology is evolving day by day, so as human’s taste. Finding human’s taste, inventing, delivering a products on time is very critical (e.g., IPhone).
    “Apps” and “Applications” both are multi-tasking and work in computers/tabs/mobiles. Digital media such as mobile and tabs require similar or all functionalities (e.g., chat, calc, calendar, word processors etc.) available on desktops/laptops.
    Now the evolving digital media is handy, everywhere access and requires everything (forget the cost paid to the networks for access 24/7). Digital media like mobile/tabs cannot hold huge memory and the OS for digital platforms are still in maturing state.
    There is a long way ahead to see the digital platform maturity where it is heading similar to “Crowdsourcing” word christened and formalized after many years by people who got involved in the early stages. “Apps” is a name coined for Digital media (size is smaller but runs on any thing) by whom I don’t know, but may stay there for long because we are getting used to it. Apps by name are the small/portable applications running on digital platforms like mobile, tabs, even laptops etc..
    This is my thought.

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