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Like 'cloud,' the term 'app' is often misused

Like the term "cloud," the "app" label is used to describe everything these days. But when is an app an application, and when is it just a Web service? And when does it matter?

It has come to my attention lately that I'm no longer 22 years old and that I may be a little set in my ways. The latest, but certainly not the first, challenge to my status quo is that it seems like just about everything can be considered an "app" if it comes from an "app store." Most things purchased via the Mac or iOS App Store are legitimate applications in my mind, but when the Chrome Web Store starts letting people install "apps" that are essentially links to websites, it begs the question: What, exactly, is an app?

I think that something is an app if it's installed on my device, and anything else is either a Web service or a website. The problem is, I know that's wrong. In desktop virtualization, the entire concept revolves around not installing anything, so that disproves the "install theory" right there. Then you have Software as a Service apps (there's that word again) that come from the Internet via the browser. Gravity, Salesforce, Google Docs and Office 365, for instance, are all legitimate applications.

But there are questionable apps that, for whatever reason, don't fit the typical profile of an application. Is 247 Mahjong an app? It's listed in the Chrome Web Store as one, but "installing" it simply places a link to it on your homepage that takes you to a rather nice mahjong game at 247mahjong.com. That's no different than how it handles Office 365, so I guess it could legitimately be called an app.

What about Wikipedia? Is it an app or just a website? It's in the Chrome Web Store and on cloud/browser desktops as an app, so they think it is. Does that mean Craigslist or CNN or HotOrNot can be -- or already are -- apps, too? Now that I think about it ... yes.

I guess an "app" is a service, in whatever capacity (local, remote, intranet, Internet) the creator chooses. Ultimately, the user doesn't care where it comes from as long as it works. TweetDeck, for instance, is hardly a locally-installed app. Sure, some bits execute locally, but it leverages the Web for all of its value. So what's the difference, then, between TweetDeck being dedicated for one task and a browser that does the same thing for many tasks? Wouldn't TweetDeck still be considered an app if it ran in its own tab in your browser?

In the end, there isn't much of a difference. When I started thinking about this, it was with the goal of finding a thick, black line so that I could say this is an app and that is a widget, but ultimately they do the same thing. What I actually managed to do was convince myself otherwise, and I'm now fully on board with this new realization of the app. That's good, because VMware, Citrix, Microsoft, Google, and every cloud desktop and user environment management vendor has been thinking that way for a while now.

From a desktop virtualization standpoint, it's nice to see that things don't change all that much. For us, it's still about getting the apps to the users. As companies rely more and more on the Web, we'll see the major vendors (and some smaller guys who may become major vendors) coming up with new ways to integrate that into a desktop virtualization environment. Citrix already has app-store functionality in the Citrix Receiver (formerly called Dazzle) as well as a federated, cloud-based offering with OpenCloud Access. VMware's Project Horizon will hopefully make landfall soon, and there are many smaller independent software vendors creating their own projects. The so-called enterprise app store is becoming a reality, and that is where admins can decide what is and is not an "app."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Gabe Knuth is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at BrianMadden.com. He has been in the application delivery space for over 12 years and has seen the industry evolve from the one-trick pony of terminal services to the application and desktop virtualization of today. Knuth's tends to focus on practical, real-world technology in the industry, essentially boiling off the hype and reducing solutions to their usefulness in today's corporate environments.

This was last published in March 2011

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I agree with you and I am also no longer 22.
How about as defining and App as anything that actually executes code and is not an operating system?
Even web services or web apps such as SaaS or Office365 have to execute some code. The link pointing to such services are links, not apps.
Now, about the cloud,...... :)
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