An application is any program, or group of programs, that is designed for the end user. Applications software (also called end-user programs) include such things as database programs, word processors, Web browsers and spreadsheets.
Image: Application Software Diagram
Application software is abstracted from the underlying technology that runs it. Abstraction in programming means that the final product, seen by the end user, doesn’t clearly show all the details under the surface. In application development, this means the program and code that manage the application. Users don’t need to know how the program is written; they only need to use the interface. Abstraction makes applications easier to view and use.
Figuratively speaking, applications sit on top of systems software because they are unable to run without the operating system and system utilities. Systems software consists of low-level programs that interact with the computer at a very basic level. This includes operating systems, compilers, and utilities for managing computer resources.
Operating systems are software that tell the computer hardware what to do. Operating systems manage all of the basic instructions for computers. They also affect what applications can be downloaded and run on a computer or mobile device. For example, some applications can’t be downloaded on devices that have older operating systems; the underlying system software isn’t able to support that particular application or a newer version of it.
Application Delivery Mechanisms
Developers have many different options for getting their applications to end users. In past decades, nearly all applications were installed directly on the users’ PCs and/or servers.
Today, many applications are delivered as Web applications. The code for these applications resides on a Web server, and users access the application via a Web browser. Common examples of Web applications include Web-based email, social media platforms, wikis, and online auctions.
The distinctions between Web applications and websites can be a bit fuzzy. However, in general, websites have primarily static content with few interactive elements, while Web applications have primarily dynamic content and are designed for user interaction.
A third type, software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, is closely related to Web applications. As with Web applications, users generally access SaaS applications via a Web browser. However, some SaaS applications can also be accessed via a native mobile app on a device like a smartphone or a tablet. Also, user data for a SaaS application is stored in a cloud computing environment (which may or may not be the case for Web applications), and many SaaS applications charge a subscription fee, which is less common for Web applications.
Well-known examples of SaaS applications include Salesforce.com, Microsoft Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud.
Recommended Reading: Enterprise Application Definition & Meaning
App Versus Application
Many people use the words app and application interchangeably, but purists will tell you that the two are slightly different. App is used to describe a type of application that has a single functionality, whereas an application may handle a number of functions. See Webopedia’s app definition to learn more.
This article was updated April 2021 by Jenna Phipps