I’ve been thinking about this question a lot over the past year. It may sound silly given the ubiquity of the word, butÂ despite all the “apps” on our phones and webpages and other devices, I’m not sure we have a good sense of what it means, or what that meaning implies.
I was happy to fall upon this nice explanation by Steven An, left in a comment on a Gamasutra article about the new Mac App Store:
I think the primary thing that Apple did 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. Before, the channels of distribution were much clunkier and inert. This is very much a good thing for smaller devs. Apple has removed so much of the headache of marketing (“Just find it on the AppStore!”), setting up payment systems, installation, etc.
This is a good start, but it only describes the business logic of the app store and its resulting apps. There’s a bigger question embedded in An’s observation: what happens when we break software up into tiny pieces?
The American Dialect Society may have inadvertently answered the question. Earlier this week they named the term ‘app’ word of the year. The Society’s rather abrupt definition is as follows:
The shortened slang term for a computer or smart phone application.
It’s reasonably accurate of course, but an “app” is really much more than just a shortened slang term. 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, as An’s comparison to music singles implies. The days of the software office suite are giving way to a new era of individual units, 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, 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 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 iDevices that contain them. It’s no accident that these gadgets also refuse the multitasking and deep integration of traditional graphical computer operating systems. Multitasking may have been omitted from early app-focused devices like the iPhone for reasons of limited hardware resources, but it’s evolved to become anathema to the app aesthetic.
Instead, apps are meant to be isolated from one another. To use a term I coined last year when the iOS 4’s rudimentary multitasking feature was released, apps latertask, they don’t multitask: “Rather than putting apps away entirely, they remain close by but inactive, like a dogeared book on the desk rather than a closed book on the shelf.” Apps are like tic-tacs, always sweet, always there, but usually there for no reason.
The app is a mixed blessing for computer aesthetics, just like music sampling is for music. On the 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 on things. And there’s a risk that deep meaning slowly seeps out of every unit as each does less and less. Apps and 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.
Critics will respond that such services 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.
If the baroqueness and oppression of applications is akin to the overly complex prog rock of Rush, then the lightness and simplicity of apps is akin to the carefree buoyancy of Ke$ha. Shortening and slang are easy and comfortable. They make you feel good. But how long can anyone get away with eye glitter and hot pants?