I’ve been Web-centric for a long time, and generally thought of what programmers build as “sites”. Then I was in Android and what everyone developed was “apps”. Now I’m in a generalist role and, uh, a little unclear as to how to refer, generally, to what software builders build.

It’s a real problem if you do a lot of advocacy, like me. I often want to start a sentence “Suppose you’re building an X and you need to...” What’s X? I’ve found myself forced into klunky constructions such as “site or service” or “app and back-end”.

Because it’s like this: Anyone who sets out to build a nontrivial piece of software these days is building some back-end server-side stuff and some browser-focused JS stuff and probably two mobile apps, iOS and Android.

I think I’m going to start using the term “app” to mean “all the pieces you need to build to have a deliverable piece of software.” Because three-letter words are good, and anyhow that’s what the actual people out there who use what we build are starting to say.

That OK with everyone?


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From: Michael Kay (Aug 07 2013, at 13:17)

Years ago IBM tried to make us call them "solutions" rather than "applications", the focus being that it solved a problem for the user rather than that it was a smart way of applying the technology. But "app" seems to have stuck.


From: Stefan Tilkov (Aug 07 2013, at 13:22)

I’d love to see some consensus on this.

I think when people talk about “Apps”, they mean the things you install on your device, typically through an app store. If they’re mere mortals, I don’t know why they’d care about the platform they run on, the store they’re distributed through, or the language used to build them.

Then there’s this good old thing we’ve always had that happens to run everywhere without needing installation. I’ve become used to calling that a Web app. I guess most people would agree.

Then there’s a technical approach you can use to build an app, using Web technologies such as HTML, CSS and lots and lots of JavaScript, and when you do one or more of bundling them for distribution in a store, ensure they look and feel native, work offline, allow for installation on the user’s home screen, people start calling these “mobile web apps”.

I hate this last term, because in my book, the term should be reserved for something that’s accessible from any device.


From: John Cowan (Aug 07 2013, at 13:28)

I've always called them "applications".


From: David Goodger (Aug 07 2013, at 13:47)

You almost answered your own question: "Anyone who sets out to build a nontrivial piece of software these days..."

"App" is very mobile-centric, and feels small, like "a piece of software". As a general term, I would say "software" or "a software system". If you want to include large deployments, use "a software system".


From: Sean Hogan (Aug 07 2013, at 16:32)

IMO there are Web APIs and Web sites.

- If it's HTTP and REST then it's a Web API.

- If people would google it or link to it then it's a Web site (which is also a Web API, though perhaps not intentionally).

- Everything else is just presentation.


From: Kevin H (Aug 07 2013, at 16:35)

Years ago, I used to create "programs" as a programmer, or sometimes "software" as a software developer or software engineer.

Then the Web took off and I started having to make distinctions between whether I was working on a "Desktop Application" or a "Web application".

Then iOS was born and I hadn't worked on a "Desktop Application" in years, and my web work got specialized into "Custom Web Programming" or sometimes (and I hate this term) "Database Programming", plus the occasional "App" for mobile.

Then iPad showed up and people started qualifying whether they wanted an "App" or an "iPad App".

Soon web technologies started making their way into iOS (and now Android) cross-development frameworks, and so I started making "web applications with an App Wrapper".

Now Windows 8 is on the scene and stuff is getting weird. I just last week had someone talk to me who thought they wanted "an App", but after 30 minutes of discussion we figured out that what they really wanted is a "touch-enabled desktop application for tablets".


From: George Phillips (Aug 07 2013, at 16:54)

You have the app on the phone (cups hands together) and all the other apps to support it (stretches arms wide). Hard to express in writing, though.

Various other words could encompass the wider picture:







and so on. I'm liking "appwork" as it covers the idea of the parts of the network (services) your app needs or have been created for it. Or maybe that should be "appernet" or just "appnet".


From: bob (Aug 07 2013, at 20:45)

The terms "site" and "app" already have a long history. Sites have been what you visit on the internet. Applications have been programs you interact with and which respond dynamically. When apps first started appearing on the web, they were referred to as Rich Internet/Web Applications, and were programmed with Java and Flash, and later with Javascript.

We already know what "app" means, there's no need to redefine it.


From: Steven Livingstone-Perez (Aug 08 2013, at 02:27)

I an see the same issue semantic arising as we start to speak about "services" as devices become more popular and expose API's. To some it will be server, others devices and some peer. I agree with you - an app is a collection of bits for an deliverable piece of software (in my case i say service to mean any api, no matter where it is exposed from).


From: Bob Haugen (Aug 08 2013, at 04:45)

I don't care what you call it, but there's a big difference between a native phone app that is isolated from the Web, and a Web resource that is hyperlinked to and from (potentially) everything else on the open Web.


From: J. King (Aug 08 2013, at 15:58)

As David Goodger pointed out, you answered your own question, Tim: Software. I consider myself to write software; if I'm writing something which performs a single task it's a program or, humbly, a script; if it's more complication perhaps it's a system. To use "app" is to be lazy; "application" is a little obscure in any case.

This is one of the many instances where French has a wonderful term ("logiciel") where the English is much more clunky.


From: Carl Forde (Aug 08 2013, at 23:27)

How 'bout, an app is something that requires a login, or installation. It is the customer interface side of whatever it is that it does. An app makes use of resources and services which some call the 'back-end'. But that gets confusing when there is an admin interface as well that others call the 'back-end'. The distinction I make is front-end/client side and back-end/server side. Consider a theatre analogy: front of the house is what the audience sees, back of the house is what makes it all possible. The "app" is what the audience goes to see.


From: Ian (Aug 28 2013, at 14:09)

I think you are going to confuse people if you start referring to everything as an 'app'.

The term 'app' is generally applied to a platform-specific piece of software which is installed locally on the device and, historically at least, could operate in some capacity without network connectivity.

A website by contrast is cross-platform and delivered page by page from a web server to a local client ap which acts as the host. Network connectivity is absolutely required.

WebApps blur the lines either being delivered from the Web but thereafter residing locally (HTML5 / JavaScript) or, comprising of a dedicated installed client app which is basically a shell interacting with the server-hosted website.

In a RESTful World a single set of web services may deliver data on demand to a variety of apps and websites without truly belonging to any one.

'app', 'website', 'webapp' and 'web services' are all valid terms, each with their own meaning and their own place in the software ecosystem.


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