I’ve been saying “I make apps” for years now, because it sounds so much better than saying “I make software.” Software can be anything, but an app is a friendly, rounded icon on your phone that actually does something. However, an app really is just a software program… so why does “app” sound so much better?
Technically, a “program” is nothing but a set of instructions for a computer. People assume that these can be useful when applied correctly. Meanwhile, an “app” is assumed to be directly useful for something. So, most people believe that a “program” is a piece of software that can be useful if it is applied correctly. However, an “app” is understood to actually be the useful application of whatever device it is running on. That’s subtle, and I think it comes close to capturing the difference, but here are 3 examples that challenge this answer:
In elementary school, I had a Game Boy. Games were physical objects; square pieces of plastic that basically contained a single program. But those weren’t called “apps;” they were called Game Boy games.
In junior high school, I had a PalmPilot. I would download games for it from TuCows.com. They were programs that I downloaded and used on my small touch-screen device. But they weren’t referred to as “apps.”
In high school, I wrote programs on my TI-84 calculator. I made games, homework “helpers”, and all sorts of stuff. I gave them to my friends via a link cable and distributed them online at ticalc.org. But again, nobody ever said “app.”
I agree that large companies (such as Apple) started using the term “app” to set different expectations for their programs. Keywords such as friendly, easy and useful come to mind. However, there is also something deeper being described, and I first encountered it when making programs for my TI-84 calculator as a high-school student.
I loved writing programs; I could create my own little universe just by pushing buttons in the right order. I liked watching other people use my programs as well; when someone else understood something I made, it was incredible (and when they didn’t, it was infuriating). But I didn’t always get to see the people that used my programs; I also distributed them online, with almost no feedback besides a daily number of downloads.
I was fascinated that hundreds of people were downloading my programs. I knew nothing more; some of them probably never even opened the program, and some others probably used them for hours. Maybe I’m just weird, but I actually enjoyed that mystery. There’s something about crafting a unique experience and then just releasing it on the internet. I loved that cycle, and I couldn’t believe that more people weren’t doing it.
Then, around the time I went to college for Computer Engineering, iPhone apps exploded, and more people started doing the thing I had been doing for years. And now everybody’s doing it. They think of an idea, create it, give it to their friends to test it, and then distribute it online. And it’s so easy! Everything about that is amazing. People tend to associate the app store with this lottery-esque economy, where you can become instantly rich if you just make the right app. That association is much stronger with the word “app” than it is with “program.”
Realistically, I now spend a lot of my time talking about engagement and analytics and all that stuff. And I do it gladly, because it’s an excellent way to tangibly assess the dollar-value of an app. But it’s definitely not why I love my job. I’m simply amazed that the programs I write are useful to thousands of strangers every day for years and years. There’s a magic to that phenomenon, and that magic is beautifully expressed by 3 simple words: “I make apps.”