Mobile Tech Manor #98: Apps, Not Programs


Another week is in the bag, and it’s time to look back and see what I learned from the happenings in Mobile Tech Manor. It was a week largely focused on apps, and I gave a lot of thought to my shift from “programs” to “apps”. It’s a big change on my approach to things, far bigger than I realized.

Apps, Not Programs

Not too long ago I was buying programs — big chunks of software that I either downloaded from the web, or got out of a box. These programs cost a lot — sometimes hundreds of dollars — because they were designed to do an awful lot. I only used a small fraction of the functionality of these programs, but the extra features were there just in case I needed them.

Because these programs could do so many things, they often didn’t do the little functions I needed well enough. You can’t expect developers to get every little thing perfect when they have millions of lines of code working together do so many things. The programs could handle most things they were designed to do, but often not optimally.

Developers of these programs had their hands full keeping them going; addressing the long list of little niggling things that customers didn’t like was a full-time job. The only way this could be done was to keep plugging away at one little bug at a time, and then releasing a massive update with lots of improvements rolled into the mix. This worked for a long time, and users tolerated it, as that was just the way things worked.

Then apps came along and things changed. I started using apps on PDAs way back in the day, but they were not as prevalent back then. Early apps had a tighter focus than big programs, which was an advantage, as developers often made them perform the one function very well. The price of these apps was a fraction of that of programs. It was possible to pick up a good app for twenty or thirty bucks, a bargain compared to the pricing of the big box programs.

App developers did a better job at support for these small apps, due to the small amount of code involved. It was common for brand new (and significant) features to get added with a new version of the app, extending the value to the user. The value proposition was easy for the consumer to see. The apps were much cheaper than big programs, but they still cost enough that it was prudent to research the various apps designed to do one function to make sure you got the right one.

Then came the smartphone and the entire app process changed again. As the number of apps on the market increased, prices dropped dramatically. A good app can often be picked up now for a couple of bucks, and that has impacted the way I approach my need for software tools. I still research online to get an idea which app may serve a particular need, but I’m not averse to grabbling several different apps designed to do the same thing to settle on the one that works best.

This means my software tool kit is better now than it has ever been, and at a fraction of the cost. I pick up apps regularly when a need arises, and with little effort I end up with a collection of apps on my smartphones that do a superb job handling the functions for which they are designed.

Because these apps are so cheap, developers are able to sell them in volume. That allows them to continue to support them, and in a more timely fashion than those old programs. Apps that cost very little are frequently updated, and developers are often adding totally new features to them that adds great value for the user. The worth of the app keeps increasing, and the tool kit keeps getting better.

Apps had been limited to the smartphone space until recently. The iPad let apps escape the confines of the little smartphone and jump over to a “real” computing device. The $2 app that was good on the smartphone, is often fantastically useful on the bigger iPad screen. Owners are buying apps at an amazing pace as a result of this new-found value.

The move of the app to a bigger device is profound. Just like on the smartphone, it is not uncommon for me to buy several apps on the iPad that do the same thing in my quest for the perfect one to meet my needs. I’m not dropping much money to do what amounts to hands-on research of the apps. The end result is I get the best tool for the job.

I’ve touched on the value of frequent app updates, and it has been nothing short of amazing how many updates many apps are getting. Several times a day on my smartphones and the iPad I hit the app stores to check for new app versions. Almost every day I find at least one, and often two or three new versions of the apps I have installed. Some of them are minor updates to address bugs, but many of them add totally new features that often have a major impact on how I use the app. It’s like getting a totally new app in these cases, and often the original app purchase price was very little.

As I thought about the massive growth of apps for phones (and now the iPad), I realized it has changed my approach to my daily work. I no longer look for larger programs to provide the tools I need, I always look for apps first. It is common for me to define a specific need for a software tool, and then buy several cheap apps to find out how they work. At the end of this short process, I usually end up with a great solution to a specific problem.

This has become such an ingrained part of my approach that I can’t remember the last time I bought a big program to do anything. There is simply no need to spend big bucks for a program that will require me to put a lot of time into learning how to use it effectively. The tiny focused app is cheap, can be installed in minutes and is easy to master. I have totally switched from programs to apps.

e-Books of the Week

I discovered a new action series this week that kept me entertained for hours. I read the first two books in the Jonathan “Digger” Grave series by John Gilstrap. Digger is the operator of a private investigator firm that specializes in operations others won’t touch, like rescuing kidnap victims. He has a good team of characters to help him, and Gilstrap tells a good story. The first book — No Mercy — whet my appetite to jump right into Hostage Zero. I enjoyed reading both books, switching between the iPad and the EVO 4G as appropriate.

Wrap up

That’s my week, spent doing a lot of heavy thinking about the way I work. My findings are appropriate for me, but your take on things might well be different. That’s why I share my take on things, and I love to hear yours in the comments.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d): To Win In the Mobile Market, Focus On Consumers


Jeff Winkler

agreed…a couple other points:
Easy refunds..if an app does not meet my needs or crashes, it’s trivial to return it for a refund within a 24 hour period. This reduces risk a lot and impulse purchases.

Standardized feedback and ratings…seeing rating and comments from other users, a click away, helps decision making.


I’ve always used “apps” (as in “applications”) and “programs” interchangeably, big ones and small ones alike.

For me, there is a balance that has to be maintained. I don’t want to wade through swaths of overspecialized apps that all only do one particular thing, but I’ve also encountered my fair share of heavyweight programs that suffer a lot from bloat (MS Office and Adobe Creative Suite come to mind, though Photoshop CS5’s content-aware fill is pretty sweet).

And, yes, this does extend to the mobile space. For instance, PIM. I do NOT like having to have a separate app for the calendar, task/to-do list, contacts, and perhaps notes. No, I prefer that all rolled up in one package, like Pocket Informant. Same for Office suites; I don’t know what I’d do without SoftMaker Office in the past, though I admit that I’ve used it a lot less now that I actually have a convertible Tablet PC for once.

At the same time, I barely scratch the features of Office versions as old as 2002, or Photoshop versions equally as old, let alone the likes of 3ds max/Maya/Softimage/Lightwave/modo or AutoCAD. Feature-packed for sure, but it can become overwhelming to use-and overwhelming for your wallet/bank account in particular, especially with those latter apps costing up to several thousand dollars each per computer!


I also am inclined to remember “you get what you pay for”. If it is quality I will pay for it. Sometimes a lot. Single function programs (which I would consider apps) have their place as to multipurpose programs. On a tiny mobile device there is less need for complex applications.

Tablets are the melting pot between phones and laptops and something like Microsoft Office or Photoshop on a tablet (with good inking) would be invaluable. If you are not doing more than a little text input of a few selections with your fingers it is hard to justify a very complex program.


People tend to forget the big difference between programs and apps is functionality. For simple stuff, a smartphone/iPad can work well, given it’s modest hardware. But it’s not the solution for folks that need to heavily multitask or focus on productivity – for them, desktop software will still reign king, along with more powerful netbooks/notebooks.

Keep in mind as well, many programs out there will never find their way into apps ever, especially software used for heavy-duty work. I do audio work a lot, and software like Cool Edit Pro will never make it onto a handheld. Likewise, it is still far easier working with Office 2010 on a netbook than it is with any handheld.

So for the same reasons, you cannot replace programs with apps just as you cannot replace a computer with an iPad – one does significantly more than the other.

The question you may want to ponder is when does a program become feature-packed overkill and an app become so simple that it is useless.


Your presumption is incorrect, my friend. There are high end audio editors already in the works for the N900, along with many apps on the level of Cool Edit that run on desktop Linux that can be ported to MeeGo/Maemo, and only need a reworked UI.

I, too, am an audio pro, and use Nuendo, Wavelab, Melodyne, and other tools on the desktop. The technology and horsepower are here today to make these apps happen on mobile platforms. There is little to prevent such a thing, and alot of momentum to make it happen. The developer of Hydrogen, a Fruity Loops like app, is working on a mobile clone, and this is just one app.

By the way, aside from high end linear audio and video editing, I’ve replace my desktop with a mobile going on 3 years now. Its not easy, but certainly not impossible.


True, I’m not familiar with the stuff you mention, but I have to say it comes down to the device at hand – I’ve yet to find any mobile device (other than notebooks/netbooks) that has a line-in jack on it. Without that, it is useless for audio work.

The other issue is screen size/resolution, and having worked for so many years with CEP, I know that a larger screen is a requirement for precision editing. That said, I can run CEP on my 8.9″ netbook with full line-in/line-out functionality, but I get far more productive when using my higher-res 17″ notebook.


Congratulations on this post! I think that in a few paragraphs you have described what may be the most profound change in computing for years to come. I had vaguely the same thoughts in my mind for a while, since I noticed that the iPad was replacing all my other computers, but hats off to your bringing this together so concisely!


Your post lack examples James. You haven’t given a good example of a big program as you call it that you forgo for a list of small apps. I may be bit more bought into the way you categorize software then.

I look at Windows and the way for each commercial software we can also find a decent open-source or freeware. Or alternatively a very cheep replacement. There are obviously exceptions but overall the huge difference is the embedded app store that smartphone platforms bring with them. That is the huge step forward and I beg to argue that it is not the apps vs. programs as you call it.


James Kendrick

Tal, my post was deliberately written in general terms because I find it a general shift in my routine.

As I stated, the purpose behind the shift to apps is not cost driven, I have shifted to apps because they are so cheap and I can try multiple apps for a given task. That’s all.

I don’t have a comparison of a big program that doesn’t do what I want vs. an app that does it better, as I find apps to do everything I need better. The real test would be to find a program that I need that does something apps won’t do, and frankly so far that’s not the case for me.

I deliberately avoided stating that apps are better than programs, I simply pointed out that apps are working better for me today.


James, other than WinMobile [with the amazing Softmaker suite] do smartphone platforms offer Programs?


As smartphone screens get larger (but not too large- 5 inch would be cumbersome navigating around with one hand), connection get faster and the phones more powerful, people would tolerate advertising on web-based applications, for good functionalities. web-based Google Docs optimized for smartphone would be great.

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