Welcome once again to "What the hell is?" on Pocket-lint, where we attempt to simply and briefly de-jargonise technology talk into what people would normally say if they weren't trying to sound clever. This week is the turn of the "app" - a term you'll have heard bandied about since the iPhone made it famous a year or 2 ago.
So, what the hell is an app? Well, strictly speaking the term app is short for the application which refers to any piece of software that works on a software system of sorts. In other words, Word is an application that runs on your main background computer software which might be Windows or Mac OS X or such. The idea of them is that they're computer programs which harness the power of your machine and direct it to perform a certain kind of job. In the case of Word, that's word processing.
As it goes Word is a desktop application as it runs from the main desktop of your computer. You might have other desktop applications like Spotify, TweetDeck, Outlook Express, Calculator, Skype and all sorts of other things. There's also a whole world of web applications out there that you run directly from the computers that host the Internet and you do that through your internet browser which is itself a desktop application. Google Docs are examples of web applications.
Since long before the iPhone was around, you've also been able to run these kinds of dedicated computer programs from mobile phones too. Again, it's similar stuff - notepads, currency converters, mini browsers and all sorts. These are mobile phone applications, and because they're running on a less powerful system than those on your computer, they're smaller and lighter and require less resources to run them. As a result, often you'll even find that they're stripped down versions of the very same ones you might use on your home machine. For example the Opera web desktop browser has a hugely successful version on the mobile phone, that does the very same task, called Opera Mini.
In 2007, Apple launched an online store where you buy all sorts of these mobile phone applications specifically designed to run on the iPhone. They sexed it up a bit by referring to them as "apps" and the rest is history. So now, common parlance essentially has it that when people are talking about apps, 95% of the time, they're going to be talking about small programs specifically made for mobile phones. Thank you Apple and your App Store for the confusion.
Since 2008, every man and his dog, seems to have an app store of their own. The Android Market sells them for Android phones, the Windows Marketplace sells them for Windows Mobile phones, Symbian still has its huge support of apps out there as well as Palm, BlackBerry as well as a few manufacturers and even networks in on the act as well. Phones also come with their own apps pre-installed too. LG handsets, for example, often have a huge grid of the things ranging from stop watches to video camera software and all of it out the box.
The reason they've come to light of late is because our mobile devices have become more and more sophisticated meaning that the apps can get more sophisticated as well. They extend the functionality of your mobile beyond that which the original manufacturer intended. They apply the technology you're powered with to real life useful situations.
They come in a variety of guises such as games, office software and novelty farting buttons, they are direct social networking access, they are proof that you are rich, they are VoIP bundles and they are often totally pointless as well but, at the same time, they are what make smartphones the customisable tools we need them to be. There are hundreds of thousands of them out there - some better than others - and there's a very good chance that the phone you already use is capable of downloading more of them. If you haven't already, then have a play.