Apps vs. applications: App-solutely confused

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Q. What's the difference between an app and an application?

A. The debate regarding the differences between apps and applications has been waged for years. Originally, applications were designed to run on computers, while apps were designed to run on smartphones and tablets; however, apps and applications (and even operating systems) have mutated to the point that this no longer applies. You might be asking why this distinction even matters. It matters because many applications now have a corresponding weaker sister app, and some users don't understand the difference. For example, if you launch both the desktop version of Excel and the online app version of Excel (from your OneDrive account, for example) as pictured below, you can see that the online app version (pictured as the top-most menu) offers fewer menu tabs and menu options than the corresponding desktop version (pictured as the bottom-most menu). (Selected functional differences are circled.)



The problem is that some CPAs don't realize they are using the app versions of their favorite programs, and hence they don't realize they are missing out on the stronger functionality provided by the application. This issue appears to be most prominent with Outlook, as many CPAs have asked me why some of Outlook's functionality has disappeared. After a brief inquiry, I am usually able to determine that they are using, the Outlook Online App, or Microsoft's Mail app rather than the Outlook application they previously used. Some of the functional differences between Outlook's menus are pictured below in the contrasting menus for (at the top) and Outlook (at the bottom).

Such differences in functionality are intentional as apps are generally designed to be simpler, more streamlined, and able to fit better on tinier smartphone-type screens, while applications tend to be designed as full-featured products. Some users quip that the difference between an app and application today is one has three letters while the other has 11, but the reality is there can be significant functional differences. Tech-savvy CPAs should be aware of those differences.


About the author

J. Carlton Collins ( is a technology consultant, a CPE instructor, and a JofA contributing editor.

Note: Instructions for Microsoft Office in “Technology Q&A” refer to the 2007 through 2016 versions, unless otherwise specified.

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