What is an app? Hint – its not just about phones

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The world of creating and marketing apps is pretty exciting right now, and has been for the past couple of years. There are literally millions of apps in app marketplaces, and available on the internet. Apps for games, productivity, self-tracking, movies, music, photos – and thats just from the main screen on my phone! But what are apps, whats involved in them and how have they suddenly become part of our lives.

What is an app?

Strictly speaking an app could be any form of computer program, probably with a user interface, that runs on any device. But realistically when we talk about apps these days we’re not referring to Excel or Photoshop – we’re referring to generally smaller applications that tend to run on our phones, tablets, or in our web browsers.

I’ve roughly grouped apps into 3 categories: Phone & Tablet Apps, Web Apps and Browser Apps & Extensions:

Phone & Tablet Apps

By far the biggest players in this category are Apple’s iPhone/iPad and Google’s Android, both dominating their markets. I’ve included Windows as its showing some promise and making some headway into the market, but in comparison to Google and Apple the numbers are really low.

Standalone or Connected – One really important distinction to make between different phone and tablet apps is that some provide a standalone function (e.g. playing music), some require an online service (e.g. twitter) and some do a bit of both (e.g. taking notes with an option to sync online).

iPhone and iPad

iPhone & iPadiPhone and iPad apps are what come into most peoples minds first of all when referring to apps – Apple were the first to create an environment where apps are how we see them today. As of writing this there’s roughly 950,000 apps in the Apple app store, roughly 375,000 of which are designed specifically for the iPad.

  • Example apps: Angry Birds, Facebook, Flixster, Tweetbot
  • Marketplace: Apple App Store
  • Monetization Options: Purchase, Advertising, In-App Purchasing, Subscription
  • Tech: Objective-C, X-Code or HTML Hybrid Apps


Android Nexus PhoneAlthough Android (from Google) came to mark later than Apple, it has made huge progress in its adoption, mostly as a result of it being free. Android currently has the largest app store and possibly the widest adoption, but only by a slim margin. Right now Google Play (the Android app store) has around 1,000,000 apps. I can’t find any stats on exactly how many apps are made specifically for tablets, but the general feeling is that its somewhat less than the app store.

  • Example apps: Angry Birds, Facebook, Flixster, Double Twist
  • Marketplace: Google Play, Amazon Appstore
  • Monetization Options: Purchase, Advertising, In-App Purchasing, Subscription
  • Tech: Java, Eclipse/Android Studio or HTML Hybrid Apps

Windows Phone & Surface

Lumia-928Windows 8 and the acquisition of Nokia has pushed Microsoft’s mobile and tablet offerings forward enough to be worth considering. Given that there is currently only about 120,000 apps in the windows store, it does hint at an opportunity.

  • Example apps: Angry Birds (its everywhere!), Facebook, Flixster
  • Marketplace: Windows Store
  • Monetization Options: Purchase, Advertising, In-App Purchasing, Subscription
  • Tech: C#, XAML, Visual Studio or HTML Hybrid Apps

Web Apps

Web AppsIts pretty much impossible to quantify the number of web apps out there as there’s no structured store, and no central registry for them. These apps could encompass very large networks (Facebook, Twitter), provide tools for specific purposes (Freshbooks, Evernote), provide entertainment (Bejewled, Farmville) or provide portals to the internet of things (Fitbit, RunKeeper). Web apps have existed in some form or another since before smartphones, but the advent of HTML5 now enables web apps to deliver features somewhat similar to a desktop application.

  • Example apps: Angry Birds (seriously you can play it online!), Facebook, Flixster, Evernote
  • Marketplace: No marketplace
  • Monetization Options: Advertising, In-App Purchasing, Subscription
  • Tech: HTML5, CSS and Javascript

Browser Apps & Extensions

Chrome Web StoreBrowser apps are a fairly new category of app, and only really supported by Chrome, Firefox and Opera. The number of apps / extensions in the browser stores is difficult to tell, but everything points to there being significantly lower numbers than mobile app stores.

Standalone or Connected – Browser apps also exhibit the same feature as mobile apps, i.e. some apps are standalone, whereas some require online services.

  • Example apps: Angry Birds, Facebook, Flixster, Evernote, Feedly
  • Marketplace: Chrome Web Store, Firefox Add-on Store
  • Monetization Options: Advertising, In-App Purchasing, Subscription
  • Tech: HTML5, CSS and Javascript

What this means to you

The good news is that there is a ton of opportnity and options out there, the bad news is its time to start making some decisions about what you want to build and take to market. Ideally, in developing your idea it will become obvious which is the best platform to deliver your app, or maybe you know right off the bat that you want to develop an Android or iPhone app, or maybe you want presence across all platforms!

In future posts I’ll discuss some techniques for generating ideas, researching them, validating then and their marketplaces, and actually developing the app techincally.

If you have any questions, comments or requests then please leave a comment below, contact me on twitter or use the contact page – I’ll do my best to reply, and I’d really like to hear from you.


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