What Is an App?

In 2010, the American Dialect Society named app the word of the year. In announcing this dubious honor, the organization offered this abrupt definition of the term:

App (n)—The shortened slang term for a computer or smart phone application.

Even the American Dialect Society may not have realized how accurately it elucidated the matter. It’s not just the term that’s shortened, and it’s not just the term that’s slanged. It’s also the application itself that’s shortened and slanged in an app.

An app is an application—that old, staid term for a unit of executable computer software—smashed into bits. “The primary thing that Apple did,” the game developer Steven An writes, “was create and market the concept of the ‘app’ as a $1–5 unit. They’re doing to software what they did to music: they broke it up into little pieces and then gave consumers a nice place to shop for the pieces.” The days of the software office suite have given way to a new era of individual software chunks, each purpose-built for a specific function. Or just as often, for no function at all.

And there’s the rub of the new era of apps. The software suite may have been an authoritarian regime, with a few large companies offering a few top-down visions of how to use computers productively. But like the LP record, it told a coherent story—or at least it presented a complete aesthetic. Apps shatter the very idea of aesthetic coherence, turning computers into weird samplers that betray the smooth, slick exteriors of the devices that contain them. It’s no accident that these gadgets also refuse the multitasking and deep integration of traditional graphical computer operating systems in favor of the fickle, one-thing-at-a-time attention of digital pets. Multitasking may have been omitted from early app-focused devices like the iPhone because of limited hardware resources, but it’s evolved to become anathema to the app aesthetic. Apps are meant to be isolated from one another.

The architecture of iOS, the operating system that runs Apple’s iDevices, even endorses isolation in its design. Despite their apparent power, iPhones and iPads have always been underpowered compared to desktop and laptop computers. The first iPhone included 128MB of random access memory (RAM), the data storage a computer uses to hold information for running applications. By the time multitasking came to iOS 4 in 2010, the devices meant to run it still only sported between 256MB and 512MB of RAM (Apple’s MacBook laptops at that time shipped standard with 4GB of RAM). Multitasking, a software engineering term for running multiple processes at once, really referred to memory residence—the operating system would keep as many programs running as it could, until memory limitations forced a “background” app to close to accommodate requests from a “foreground” app.

It might be more accurate to call this practice “latertasking” instead of multitasking. Rather than putting apps away entirely, iOS keeps them close but inactive. As a result, the usage patterns we learned from the era of the graphical user interface (GUI) have shifted. Instead of moving rapidly between multiple applications on a windowed desktop, apps demand deliberate one-step-at-a-time action. Smartphones make latertasking palatable by making it necessary—there’s just not enough screen real estate nor input methods to carry out multiple interactions at once. And so what once would have been a smooth transition from file manager to photo editor to layout program on the desktop becomes a staccatoed dance of taps and gestures and home button depressions, closing and opening whole programs, moving files to cloud storage just to reopen them a moment later somewhere else. It’s the GUI interaction model exploded into shrapnel.

Ironically, the broken-into-bits model for software productivity is among the oldest around. UNIX, the server operating system first developed at Bell Labs in the late 1960s, features a modular design that encourages users to use (and program) small, focused programs that can direct input and output to one another. A data access program might direct its output into a processing program, which might in turn channel its output to a formatter for print display.

Both Apple’s OS X desktop operating system and the simplified version of it that became iOS are based on versions of UNIX, but this low-level app-to-app interaction is largely unavailable, hidden by the gloss of the GUI and its promise of user-friendliness. Later versions of iOS offer a minimal version of app-to-app data piping, but only as tightly controlled by the operating system—sending images from Photos to Twitter, for example. The return to the tiny, purpose-built app is not a return to free-form, brick-by-brick computational productivity and creativity but the creation of a dense tenement block of isolated programs forced into submission by an absentee landlord.

The app is a mixed blessing for computer aesthetics, just like sampling is for music. On one hand, we get many variations of the same thing that can surprise us when refashioned in different permutations. But on the other hand, we get fewer coherent, complete takes. And there’s a risk that deep meaning slowly seeps out of every unit as each does less and less. Apps and their cousins, isolated web services like Foursquare and Facebook, give us a preview of this potential future agony, one in which the most basic chunk of meaning is the conveyance of a piece of data from a database to a screen and back again. Here’s where I was and here’s what I looked like when I was there.

Critics will respond that apps allow people rather than corporations to define what’s interesting or important to them, individuals synthesizing the configuration and use of apps like teenagers fashioning mix tapes. There’s both truth and gloom in this observation. As exhilarating and rousing as that feeling might be, it’s precious and fragile too. Apps are lithe and delicate and charming, but with that frivolous delight comes temporariness. If the baroqueness and oppression of applications are akin to the complexity of prog rock, then the lightness and simplicity of apps are akin to the carefree buoyancy of radio pop. Shortening and slang are easy and comfortable. They make you feel good. But soon enough, their freshness fades, and something else must come along to replace them. As in language, slang in software implies constant novelty. An app is software that’s here, for a moment, and then gone.