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The rise of the app

With Apple’s latest iPhone released today, and its Google rival reportedly soon to follow, there will soon be more ‘apps’ in use than ever before. For the increasing number of us who own a smartphone or tablet, apps have become a part of 21st century life. And they’re big business: the market in apps is now worth billions of pounds a year, and is growing rapidly.

As smartphones — and the apps that run on them — have become more widespread, so the word app has moved into popular use. The number of searches on Google involving the word has increased exponentially over the last four or five years, and it was voted as the American Dialect Society’s word of the year for 2010 as a result of its accession to the mainstream.

The history of the word ‘app’

But, unlike smartphones and tablets, app isn’t new. According to the OED‘s historical entry for the word, app as a shortening of application (as in application program) first found its way into print in the 1980s. Back then it was mainly a colloquial term used in computing circles: the OED‘s early quotations for it come from such computing trade publications as Info World and Dr. Dobb’s Journal. It often appeared not by itself but as part of the phrase killer app, meaning a software application which makes a new computing platform desirable or necessary. Later, it became part of webapp, meaning an application made available as a website, but as a word used on its own it remained relatively uncommon.

But with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, this began to change. Initially, the only software allowed to run on this new phone was that provided by Apple itself. Third-party developers were expected to run their own applications as web applications accessible through the device’s web browser. Developers were not satisfied by this, however, and in 2008 Apple relented to their demands, opening their App Store for the first time. Within months thousands of ‘apps’ were made available and were downloaded millions of times, making a lot of money for their developers in the process (and also for Apple, who take a cut of each purchase).

The popularity and profitability of Apple’s App Store led other makers of smartphones (such as Google’s Android) to try to emulate its success, and create such software marketplaces for their own devices. And, following Apple’s lead, they tended to refer to the software they were selling as apps. (Amazon went as far as using the name Appstore for Android, drawing the ire of Apple’s legal team.)

Smartphones or ‘app phones’?

The quality and number of apps available on platforms such as iPhone, Android, or Windows Phone have since become an important way for consumers to differentiate between them. The technology writer David Pogue has suggested that such phones should be called app phones, underlining the importance of apps to such devices. Up-and-coming smartphone manufacturers must woo developers into creating apps for their platform, and organizations must create apps for popular phones in order to stay relevant. And as the app has grown in commercial and cultural importance, usage of the word app has continued to increase.

A dictionary editor is not just concerned with how popular a word is, however, but also with how its meaning may have changed over time. In one sense the development of app isn’t that interesting: despite its leap into the mainstream, it still means not much more than an ‘application’ for a computer system (modern smartphones being nothing more than pocket computers). Yes, apps are currently associated mainly with smartphones and tablets, but this may prove to be temporary: Apple’s OS X operating system for its Mac computers now has its own App Store, and the next version of Microsoft Windows promises to make ‘apps’ available in a similar way.

But in another sense, there are important distinctions between the usage of app and application. Because apps have been made available mainly through curated software marketplaces such as Apple’s, an app has come to be seen as something quite different from other software. Where downloading programs from the Internet was something for only the knowledgeable, for fear of introducing viruses or unwittingly breaking a computer, an app is something friendly, safe, and (importantly for the companies involved) easy to purchase.

Friendly language, friendly software

The slightly intimidating process of ‘downloading and installing a program’, achievable by only the more technologically adept or confident among us, has become the straightforward ‘getting an app’. By initiating this change in the language of computer software, perhaps the transformation of the software application into the friendly, safe, and marketable ‘app’ represents another legacy of the late Steve Jobs.

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